The men behind a Farmington-based nonprofit are taking on the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, a 3,000-mile boat race across the Atlantic Ocean, to spread awareness of their mental health network for police officers, firefighters and other first responders.
Mark Pfetzer, Jarrod Slindee and Mike Hogue visited the Boys & Girls Club of La Plata County earlier this month to talk about their nonprofit, Guardian Initiatives, and show off the rowing vessel they will take to the seas in December for the Talisker Whisky challenge.
The men work for San Juan County (New Mexico) Sheriff’s Office, except Hogue, who retired from the same office about a decade ago. Pfetzer is a captain and Slindee is a lieutenant.
Slindee addressed a group of about a dozen children from the Boys & Girls Club and answered their questions about the upcoming race.
Pfetzer said Guardian Initiatives was created to support first-responder mental wellness in the Four Corners because trauma and PTSD often go unseen in the world of firefighters, police, EMS and corrections officers.
“We thought why not work for first-responder mental wellness for our whole Four Corners area?” he said. “We decided we would do that. We had this row in mind so we’re using the row as an awareness campaign. And then also to help with bringing in treatment, training for treatment, training for agencies, training for individuals.”
He said the biggest impacts Guardian Initiatives can make are through providing training services. Training is not just provided to first responders but to entire agencies and clinicians brought on to work with traumatized people.
One of the challenges first responders have in finding treatment is finding a clinician who understands the first responder culture, he said.
“You’ve got a group of – especially cops – Type A personalities that are called every day to fix people’s problems. And we’re really good at it, but we suck at fixing our own,” Pfetzer said. “Clinicians who understand the cop and first responder culture understand the language and shift work and stuff.”
Developing cultural competence in clinicians is one focus of Guardian Initiatives. The nonprofit has trained hundreds of clinicians. It also trains new first responder recruits in what to expect on the job and how to deal with difficult experiences, he said.
Guardian Initiatives is also helping fund treatments through other organizations for Four Corners first responders.
Most first responders have good insurance, Pfetzer said. But many first responders also happen to be volunteers. The San Juan County Fire Department has more than 200 volunteers, for example.
“They may not have insurance to cover treatment. There may be a first responder and even though he has good insurance he can’t afford copays or he has bills that can’t be neglected,” he said. “So we want to be able to step in and say, ‘Hey, we can help facilitate this because money shouldn’t be a reason you’re not getting treatment.’”
There are “tons” of resources out there. The trick is finding them. Guardian Initiatives is working with several organizations to share resources. FHE Health hosts a first responder program called Shatter Proof that Four Corners police officers, firefighters and EMS personnel have received treatment through, he said.
Pfetzer said despite all the tactical, safety and medical training and equipment first responders have, they are vulnerable to trauma.
“We’ve had first responder suicides in Durango, we’ve had them in Farmington,” he said. “More cops and firefighters die by suicide every year than from risks of the job.”
Mental wellness is like physical wellness – one can’t stay fit if he or she goes to the gym only once a year. Neither can people maintain mental health fitness if they don’t make an effort to take care of it, he said.
“Events we experience can be traumatic events. We’re familiar on the veterans’ side where soldiers go off to war and they experience a situation that causes post-traumatic stress. A lot of times that is a singular incident. That can happen in the first responder field as well,” he said.
Pfetzer called PTSD “death by a thousand cuts.”
“All us first responders, we’ll all experience a traumatic event. And we won’t all (die by) suicide. But we’ll all experience a traumatic event. So we’ve got to bring in training,” he said.
Pfetzer, Slindee and Hogue will join 34 other rowing vessels in a race across the Atlantic on Dec. 12. They will start in La Gomera, the Canary Islands in Spain, and row nonstop in shifts until they reach English Harbour, Antigua, 3,000 miles away.
The crew anticipates the race taking 45 days to complete.
“We want to finish safely, we want to finish better friends than (when) we started,” Pfetzer said. “We want to most of all make it work for our cause, which is first-responder mental wellness.”
The rowing vessel weighs a couple thousand pounds when empty. But it will gain in weight with 60 days worth of food, 30 liters of emergency water, anchors and other equipment.
The vessel is also equipped with GPS gear, radio antennas, a compass, safety harnesses and a desalinator to supply fresh water.