More than a Party: SBPF Event Funds Critical Programs
While it promises to be a good time, the 5th annual Fun with the Force event is also expected to save lives. “It is a fun event, but it’s not your typical fundraiser,” said the event chair, Jim Nigro. The party, including dozens of top named local restaurants and vineyards, and a performance by Kenny Loggins, will benefit the Santa Barbara Police Foundation, which in turn supports the rapidly-growing At Ease Program. At Ease is a confidential counseling service offered free of charge to law enforcement and first responders.
Retired Santa Barbara Police Sgt. Mike McGrew co-founded the program in 2014, after recognizing a dire need within his department. “This profession has a high suicide rate, high divorce rate, and alcoholism rate,” he explained. Unfortunately, the trend is not unique to law enforcement officers, according to retired Montecito Fire Department Chief Chip Hickman. “Last year, in the fire service in our nation, we lost more firefighters to suicide for the very first time than we lost in the line of duty deaths,” he said. “It’s a huge issue.”
The intensely stressful nature of these professions is only partially to blame, according to Cherylynn Lee, PhD, Behavioral Sciences Manager for the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office. “When traumatic experiences aren’t processed or dealt with appropriately, they can contribute to medical issues such as heart problems, cancer and chronic pain; psychological issues such as stress, anxiety, depression and PTSD; and relational issues such as divorce, isolation and disengagement from family activities,” she explained. “As a psychologist, I know we in the healthcare community can do better to treat our folks that put their lives on the line every day.”
The goal of the At Ease program is to encourage men and women in the life-saving professions to also take care of themselves. “We need to change the culture and say, ‘it’s OK to ask for help,’” Hickman said. When he heard about the At Ease program several years ago, he knew he wanted to be a part of it. “I reached out to see if there was any way Montecito Fire could participate, and he (Sgt. McGrew) agreed with open arms,” Hickman said.
Soon after Hickman signed on, the program’s effectiveness was put to the test. During the Thomas Fire and debris flow that followed, At Ease provided debriefing and counseling services for all emergency personnel involved. “I truly believe that the [At Ease] program has made a tremendously positive result from what could have been pretty catastrophic for us as a department,” Hickman said. “Typically in these kind of events you lose approximately ten percent of your personnel to some type of stress issues related to those events. We haven’t lost anybody.”
Following the recent deadly Conception boat fire, the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Department also requested At Ease provide Critical Incident Stress Debriefings. “Debriefings are a way our first responders can relieve some of the stress of a critical incident immediately,” explained Lee. “Often times during a debriefing people will talk about what they saw, what they did, and how they are taking care of themselves or coping with the aftermath.”
Debriefings are not unheard of, but historically, due to the cost associated with bringing in trained counselors, many departments can’t afford them. “At Ease enables agencies to do it on a more frequent basis,” explained McGrew. At Ease also offers a 24/7 hotline for emergency and law enforcement personnel and their families. “You just call, and if you have an emergency situation, you have a licensed clinician on the phone and then they can direct you how to seek help and give you counseling immediately, and also set you up for follow up counseling,” Hickman added.
“Any time anyone comes to us and asks if they can utilize the At Ease program, our attitude is, ‘absolutely!’ We’ll figure out a way to pay for it,” explained Police Foundation Executive Director Greg Hons. “It’s not about what patch you have on your shoulder. It’s about getting our brothers and sisters the help, and then we’ll figure out a way to fund it.”
Emergency room personnel are also in line for the program. “We’re trying to include the people at Cottage, so the emergency room nurses and doctors can get the same type of help because we are all on the same team and deal with traumatic stuff in an emergency setting,” Hons added. The program has served more than 400 people, this year alone. “It is saving marriages, and keeping more people from the self-destructive things we do to ourselves,” said Hons.
Organizers of this year’s Fun with the Force event emphasized the importance of continued and increased funding for the At Ease program. “The more resources we can gather to help our heroes the healthier they will be and that can translate to better service for our community,” said Lee.
In addition to the At Ease Program, the SBPF provides aid to SBPD employees and their families in the event of catastrophic illnesses or injuries and line of duty death. It also provides non-budgeted equipment for the police force.
The Fun with the Force event has also grown over the last six years. “The first year we had under 200 people, and in 2017, we had over 600 people,” Explained Nigro. “This year, we’re anticipating 800 people.” (Last year, the event’s coordinators put it on hold, in order to focus on the Kick Ash Bash.) Organizers believe there is a reason for the event’s success.
“When the going gets tough, you see how amazing this community is, and how people pull together and do things for each other, amazing things for the first responders,” stated Hons.
In addition to great food and wine, Fun with the Force will host SWAT and K9 demonstrations. Organizers are also proud to announce the addition of Kenny Loggins to the lineup. “We are so grateful to have Kenny Loggins, who is such an iconic and instrumental part of our community, agree to support our organization this year,” said McGrew.
Fun with the Force will be held Sunday, September 29 from 4 to 7 pm at the Nesbitt Estate. For more information or to purchase tickets, go to https://www.santabarbarapolicefoundation.com/calendar/9592-2019-fun-with-the-force