Los Angeles County Fire Capt. Scott Ross, right, talks over issues with Firefighter Richard Conejo, left, who was recently affected by the death of a fellow firefighter. They meet under the auspices of the L.A. County Fire Department's Peer Support Program. (Brad Graverson/Staff Photographer)
By LA Daily News Staff Writer Christina Villacorte
Sometimes, heroes need saving too.
Firefighter Richard Conejo fell into depression after a fellow firefighter, Glenn Allen, perished in a blaze at a Hollywood Hills home almost a year ago.
"I had nightmares and could hardly eat," Conejo said.
The men had been standing only a few feet apart when the ceiling collapsed on Allen. Conejo performed CPR but the 61-year-old veteran died days later, just missing the birth of his first grandchild.
It was all too much for Conejo, 36, particularly the thought of how he himself barely escaped. He and his wife had been planning to start a family.
"When I got home, that's what made me break down and cry," Conejo said.
That's when the Los Angeles County Fire Department's peer support program jumps in.
Over the past 25 years, specially trained firefighters have helped their "brothers" handle the strain inevitable in a job that requires rushing into burning buildings, hanging from helicopters to pluck people out of swollen rivers, and prying open train wrecks to look for survivors.
"Firefighters are this macho crew who think, `We've got to be tough,' but the bottom line is we're all human," said fire Capt. Scott Ross, a team leader in the program who reached out to the despondent Conejo.
"The stuff that we see on a daily basis, all the tragedy and suffering, it can be overwhelming," Ross added. "There's a breaking point in everybody."
About 60 firefighters volunteer to help colleagues shaken by a particularly harrowing incident, like the death of a child.
"We definitely look out for our brothers," said fire engineer/paramedic Dan Timboe, another team leader on the program, which does not provide any extra pay.
Some firefighters experience a form of depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. Others complain of being burned out and stop going to work.
And then there are those who resort to alcohol, drugs or gambling to numb the pain, and those who take out their frustrations on their families, or act distant and isolated from them.
Firefighters have one of the highest rates of divorce of any profession in the country.
"We're not counselors," Timboe said. "But because we're firemen, they're more willing to talk to us than to a total stranger."
Many members of the peer support program have endured crises themselves.
Ross helped recover the body of his son's girlfriend after she fell overboard during a boating accident in Arizona. He had watched the teenager grow up and considered her a member of the family.
Timboe is the designated team leader for cases involving alcohol abuse, because he himself used to drink, many years ago.
Most of the time, they are able to ease their fellow firefighters' stress by simply meeting with them over coffee, letting them vent, and talking about their own struggles and how they overcame it.
Occasionally, however, they recommend a call to mental health professionals who contract with the LACoFD.
Marriage and family therapist Steve Froehlich said without the intervention of the peer support program, firefighters might never go to him for the help they need.
"As a group, firefighters are psychologically very, very hardy and resilient, ... much more quick to step up to help somebody else rather than themselves," Froehlich said. "What makes this program incredibly valuable is that a first responder might not be comfortable talking to a mental health professional, but a peer supporter can change their mind by giving that professional their seal of approval."
LACoFD created the peer support program after the 1986 Cerritos air disaster, when a small plane and an airliner collided in midair and crashed into a residential neighborhood.
All 67 people aboard both aircraft and 15 others on the ground were killed.
Ten of the dead were children.
"Firefighters were exposed to all this carnage on the streets, and we noticed its emotional effect on them was not going away," said Assistant Chief Gerald Heinzel, the department's current peer support coordinator.
"By introducing some peer supporters and mental health professionals to let the firefighters talk about what they experienced, and the frustration they felt, we were able to bring them back to normalcy."
Heinzel said the program gets about 200 to 600 referrals a year. Sometimes firefighters seek out the help themselves. Often, however, their spouse or fellow firefighters make the call on their behalf.
The department also proactively deploys teams to particularly sensitive incidents, so they can be on the scene to offer help when asked. They never force the intervention.
The teams were summoned to help in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and have also offered advice to local municipal fire departments.
They were particularly needed when fire Capt. Ted Hall and firefighter specialist Arnie Quinones were killed during the Station Fire in 2008. The men were well known in the department, having served for a combined 35 years in about a dozen fire stations.
Ross welcomed the phone calls, even those that came in the middle of the night.
"We get up for the public 24/7," he said. "I most certainly am not going to have a problem with a firefighter calling me. I'm here for them, any time."
The program is not always successful. Some firefighters rebuff offers of help and end up quitting to avoid the stress, or being terminated because they cannot stay sober on the job.
There also have been rare cases of suicide.
Ross met Conejo at the hospital where the latter underwent a checkup after the Hollywood Hills house fire. Conejo lost 15 pounds over the span of a month while struggling to come to terms with what happened, but Ross and other firefighters eventually pulled him through.
Conejo and his wife are now expecting their first child. He has applied to join the peer support program, which is holding a recruitment drive to boost the number of its volunteers to 100.
"They helped me out a lot, and if I can give that same comfort and solace to somebody else, that's something I have to do," he said. "I think it's my duty as a fireman."