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Dog duo helps provide first responders in D.C. with extra support

The pups are a part of a support team of the D.C. Fire and EMS Department and the local firefighters union.

Chocolate lab Avery, left, and German shepherd Levi. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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First responders defended the Capitol for hours on Jan. 6, many getting beaten, trampled and pepper-sprayed or witnessing their colleagues under assault.

A few months later, the group’s pain was heightened by another attack when a driver drove his car into a gate outside the scene of the insurrection, killing one Capitol Police officer and injuring another.

After each traumatic event, a peer-support team responded to provide emotional and mental health support to their colleagues. One jurisdiction brought in a dog. The canine turned out to be an icebreaker and a source of comfort that made it easier for people to open up.

“That dog changed everything from my standpoint watching,” Sgt. Scott Creelman of the D.C. Fire and EMS Department and a peer-support team member, said. “That dog was simply amazing.”

Seeing that success, the D.C. fire department and D.C. Firefighters Association, International Association of Firefighters (IAFF) Local 36, added two furry companions as members of the peer-support team in October: Levi, a 6-year-old German shepherd, and Avery, a 4-year-old chocolate Lab.

“It just makes everybody feel better when the dogs come into the room,” said Levi’s handler, EMS Capt. Sharon Moulton.

At a recent meeting in D.C. introducing the newest members of the peer-support team, Levi wore a vest — part of his uniform — and a knit badge that read, “Mama says I’m special.”

The fire department and union created the peer-support team in 2019 to help and support members dealing with emotional stress or mental health challenges, the department said, striving to create a space where first responders can support each other and talk after traumatic events.

The team played a crucial role after the insurrection, meeting with about 600 Capitol Police officers who needed help after the attack, the department said.

“Years past, it’s always been a ‘Suck it up and run with it’ type thing. So people go take that home with them.” Creelman said. “We want to erase that stigma that, you know, ‘Everybody has to be tough.’ It’s okay if you need to talk to somebody. And that’s how this peer-support group really got started.”

Sgt. Jason Woods, peer-support-team coordinator, said past programs have assisted first responders with stress and mental health, but after the department suffered multiple suicides, more efforts were taken. Woods said peer-support team members are “a team of trusted colleagues” trained to identify when a person is in crisis and then to connect them with the resources they need. The recent addition of Levi and Avery have given the peer-support team a new tool to reach those who need help accepting help.

“People start coming up wanting to pet the dogs, and then sometimes people start opening up or they’ll feel more at ease to just say, ‘Hey, can I talk to you on the side?’," Woods said.

Capitol Police officer was killed by car striking him, D.C. police say

Local 36 Union President Dabney Hudson said the team arrives at stations to offer support when traumatic incidents occur, whether it be through opening up a discussion or letting first responders know they have someone there for them. The team follows up and focuses on long-term effects, such as PTSD, Hudson added. A fully staffed 24/7 hotline is also available for colleagues to call, with the option to remain anonymous.

Getting a service dog for extra support costs upward of $30,000, but the team found another solution closer to home. Levi is Moulton’s dog and Avery is Creelman’s.

The two went through professional training courses and received certificates, and the dogs joined a team made up of about 45 members and two contracted mental health clinicians.

Since the group is a part of the IAFF, the team is able to travel across the country to respond to departments in need. Other local law enforcement and emergency service agencies can request the peer-support team, too, Woods said.

The dogs can travel too, as department employees, ready for any mission.

“People just connect with animals differently than people, that maybe that animal would be enough to get somebody help,” Moulton said.

In the coming months, the peer-support team plans to bring the dogs to positive events and outreach first through going to different firehouses to talk about peer support and how to access the program. This way, people can get familiar with them before being called to a tragic event, Moulton said.

“You sit down, you talk to people and you say, “We’re here for you,” Moulton said. “It makes a difference when they can just pet the dogs and connect to the dogs, and sometimes people ask to go and walk them and be alone with them for a little bit.”

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