Breckenridge Texan

Wayland VFD introduces Warriors Research Institute’s free firefighter therapy to area

Wayland VFD introduces Warriors Research Institute’s free firefighter therapy to area
August 08
19:19 2019

In 2017, the latest year statistics are available, 103 U.S. firefighters killed themselves, almost 10 percent more than the number of firefighters who were killed in the line of duty that year (93), according to a report by the Ruderman Family Foundation. That’s a rate that’s almost 40 percent higher than the suicide rate in the general population, according to the research.

Other firefighters deal with a range of issues on a regular basis, including problems with anger, depression and anxiety.

Last week, the Wayland Volunteer Fire Department took steps to try and prevent tragedies such as suicide from happening in the firefighter community of Stephens County by hosting a representative from Baylor Scott and White Health. Michelle Pennington, program manager with the hospital’s Warriors Research Institute, drove up from Waco last Thursday to talk to the firefighters about a program aimed at offering first responders mental health treatment.

Project Access is a research program that is offered free to firefighters and EMS personnel. The project is funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and there are no requirements for insurance and no billing involved.

Brian Rogers, a volunteer with the Wayland VFD, said he invited Pennington to speak to the group after receiving an informational email from her.

“It is a difficult subject to talk about,” he said. “(Mental health) is an extremely difficult subject to talk about. This encapsulates all fire departments. It’s everywhere. One of the battles is getting people to talk about it.”

The program is designed to help firefighters who are dealing with issues including anger, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, suicidal thoughts, post-traumatic stress disorder and more. Project Access is provided through a “telehealth clinic” via a live video chat application similar to Skype.

Typically, participants have weekly one-hour sessions with a therapist through WebEx, a video conferencing program that can be used on a computer or cell phone. The average participant has 12 weeks of sessions, but the specific number will depend on the individual.

“There is a need for clinicians who are aware of the firefighter culture,” Pennington said, explaining why the program was started. “And, we recognize some of the barriers to accessing behavioral health care. One of those is location, I think, especially for y’all, way out here. Others are schedules and issues with confidentiality or stigma.”

The project is a research study because the organizers are investigating the effectiveness of telehealth for Texas firefighters. Another mission of the research study is to train future generations of treatment providers. As part of the study, the staff is training students from Baylor University, Texas A&M and Tarleton’s programs for social work and clinical psychology.

During the presentation last week, those in attendance viewed a video of a simulated counseling session and listened to the testimony of a firefighter who went through the program and volunteered to let others know how it benefited him.

The sessions are provided by therapists who have been trained in firefighter cultural awareness, Pennington said. Participation in the program is private and confidential. The Warriors Research Institute’s staff will not inform anyone else, including supervisors, when a firefighter signs up.

During the sessions, the firefighter works with the therapist to develop goals and a treatment plan to determine where the firefighter wants to be, in regards to his/her mental health, at the end of the treatment.

“We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback so far,” Pennington said.

As of last week, the project has provided therapy for 45 firefighters in 23 departments, delivered over 400 treatment sessions. Ninety-four percent of the participants said they would use telehealth again, and 100 percent said they would recommend it to a co-worker, Pennington said.

“That is probably one of the best ways we’ve recruited new people…we get one person from a department and then they tell everybody else and we end up with several people from that department,” she said. “Some of the things our participants have said they like about telehealth…they like the convenience, the flexibility, it’s easy to access, they don’t have to leave their home, and they like our therapists.”

The program has two therapists, and it is directed by Dr. Suzy Gulliver, who has more than 20 years of experience working with firefighters.

The Warriors Research Institute also has a similar program for U.S. military veterans and their families, and the organization is looking into developing a program for police officers and other law enforcement personnel.

Project Access will accept new participants at least through the end of February 2020, which is when the current funding runs out. However, the organizers are seeking additional funding, and anyone who signs up through February will receive the full therapy program.

To sign up for the program, a firefighter/EMT can call 254-716-6208 or send an email to Information is also available on the website .  There are some screening questions that need to be answered to make sure the person signing up is eligible for the program. Additionally, there are some forms to fill out for pre-treatment assessment to help the therapist determine any issues the participant may be experiencing.

Research assistants are available to help anyone with the sign-up process.

Rogers also said that the Code Green Campaign works to assist firefighters and other first responders who need help with mental health issues. For more information on Code Green, visit the website


Story by Carla McKeown/Breckenridge Texan

Cutline, top photo: Michelle Pennington, program manager for Warriors Research Institute, speaks to members of the Wayland Volunteer Fire Department last week about Project Access. (Photo by Tony Pilkington/Breckenridge Texan)

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