Spotlight: Andrea Westrum, FRC Coach

The Spotlight series highlights individuals in first responder life who have felt an impact, made an impact, and shared an impact with others. We need to share our stories to know we’re not alone and we can do this… together!

Caroline: For this month’s Spotlight, we’re talking to Andrea Westrum, one of our FRC coaches on the West Coast. Andrea lives in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California with her two daughters and dog, Tiberius, who’s currently in training to become a firefighter therapy dog. More on that soon.

Andrea started as a lifeguard at sixteen. She was married to a third-generation police officer. Later, Andrea became a volunteer EMT with Rock Med from 2006-2009. She was a volunteer and advocate for the fire department and their Neighborhood Emergency Preparedness Program. She has been dating a firefighter for the last two years. In 2020, she and Tiberius, or Ty, started visiting stations and fire events to provide support to first responders across California.

Andrea has been involved in the first responder world for over thirty five years. She works to break the mental health stigma and make mental health care normal and accessible. Today we’re talking about how she’s been breaking down barriers and sharing education of first responder situations in her area.

Andrea, hello and thank you for being in the Spotlight this month! Let’s start with the cute part. Talk about Tiberius. What kind of dog is he?

Andrea: Hi! Ty is a Bernese Mountain dog. He is now two years old. We were going through Covid. My daughter was having a hard time being homeschooled. Because of Covid, the breeder picked him out. He was picked out specifically to be a therapy dog. My daughter has Asperger’s, ADHD, and depression and I wanted a dog that would be able to travel and help her.

We’ve been going through training. Unfortunately, I’ve had two knee surgeries in a year so his training has been delayed. Luckily, he got a lot of exposure therapy before I hurt my knee. He’s been to quite a few fire incidents. He can’t go on base camps yet because he’s not certified but we go outside the base camps. We usually hang out at the hotels with the firefighters or walk around town where they’re eating.

His Instagram is a great way for us to communicate. That’s how we get a lot of visits arranged. We’re actually leaving for Tehachapi tonight to visit a helitech. It’s about four hours away in the Southern California mountains. I like him to get exposure. He loves what he does and he understands more than people realize. When I put the vest on him, he goes into work mode. I’m looking forward to him being certified by the end of the year.

Caroline: He’s a good size for a therapy dog.

Andrea: You don’t typically see Bernese; it’s typically labs and goldens. He’s such a goofball too. We had those huge fires in 2020. We had to evacuate for a week. So, we were at a campground with a lot of the other evacuees and here was a little baby Bernese in a stroller. I would take him to the hotels to visit the guy I’m dating and that’s when it clicked.

“Wow, he can be with my daughter but he doesn’t go to school so he could have a whole other life and he would be awesome at this.” He’s a big, goofy dog and loves to be petted and super attached to firefighters.

Caroline: He knows his calling.

Andrea: He’s a rockstar. He sees the uniform and goes right to it. He’s cool with the helicopters. The minute the vest goes on and I say, “Let’s go to work,” he knows. It just brings so much joy.

Caroline: It sounds rewarding.

Andrea: I love going to dispatch centers, helitechs, fire scenes, hotels, all over California. He goes from person to person and gets his pets. I think he also knows who needs it a little more. He likes to sit on your feet. I’m glad to see that dogs are becoming more of the first responder therapy world.

Caroline: They’ve been doing studies on therapy dogs for first responders and it’s improving outcomes.

Andrea: A lot of these firefighters have dogs, and when they’re gone for weeks or months they miss them. A lot of stations are getting dogs now. It’s great. To have a dog at a station helps tremendously.

My parents had dementia and Alzheimer’s and there was a dog at the place they lived. My dad was in a wheelchair. This dog was big and my dad put his hand out and the dog would sit. My dad would just pet him absentmindedly. It’s that kind of connection that helps so much. It helps my daughter tremendously when he crawls in bed with her to struggle. He’s a big teddy bear.

Caroline: You said that you were also a volunteer and an advocate for the fire department in the Neighborhood Emergency Preparedness Program. Can you talk about that?

Andrea: I grew up in Palo Alto. We were all friends with firefighters and police. I would go by the station and we would start talking. During that time, there was a lot of talk about brownouts in Palo Alto which is still going on. I was asked to do petitions and go out and talk to the public about it because I was part of the Neighborhood Preparedness Program.

We lived in a very diverse neighborhood, right across from Stanford, so we had a lot of foreigners who were not aware of emergency situations and may not even speak English. I would go around and try to get people on board and get ideas and training so our neighborhood could have a plan if something were to happen.

That was a cool way to network with police as well as fire. I would go to farmers’ markets and educate the public on what happens when stations are browned out and not available. Some people may [wonder] why they need so many fire stations. What they don’t understand is that if that station closes, and your husband has a heart attack, and the station across town is already on a call, you’re going to have a delay getting care.

I think there’s a lot of education needed. They don’t understand you can’t just eliminate one person. That person has this job and this type of work. Some have different levels of medical training. Palo Alto also has their own ambulance.

It seems like there’s so many stations in the city but they’re all really busy. It’s not like when they go on a call they’re done in ten minutes. They’re going to be busy for an undetermined amount of time, but it also depends on the level of urgency. A lot of people didn’t understand. I’m always advocating for firefighters and their job. There’s a lot of miscommunication.

People don’t understand there’s a difference between city firefighters versus county, Cal Fire, Hot Shots. Those are entirely different worlds, different jobs, different pay grades. People are shocked. They assume they’re all the same. I think it would help if people understood how different they are.

Caroline: It sounds like you’ve worked with a lot of different avenues of first responder world. Police and fire and EMS, right?

Andrea: Not as much police life as I was living it. I was in that circle for over ten years. My ex-father-in-law was a police officer. My daughter’s godfather was a police officer. All her birthday parties were all police and fire. It just becomes part of your world, your norm. Guys would stop by on their breaks and we had police cars in the driveway.

Then the EMT world was something I really enjoyed. I wish I could have done it longer. I got injured and then I had my second daughter so things took a turn. That was something I really loved doing especially because it was a really good organization. I would love to get back into it now that my daughter’s a little older.

The fire world just sort of started. It wasn’t the plan but that’s how it went with Ty. We visit a police station here and there; we definitely don’t pick and choose. We say hi to the ambulance crews. My focus is definitely on the firefighters because that’s where I did my deep dive as far as research. That just ends up where all my connections are and where I end up going all the time. So, it’s how things have worked out over the last couple years.

Caroline: Sometimes we never know what direction life is going to take us.

Andrea: Ty loves firefighters and police equally. Sometimes, we’ll be at a station and the police will come by and say, “Hey, why doesn’t he come visit us.” We’ve done that a couple times. Usually, if we’re visiting a fire dispatch we’ll pop over to the police dispatch too. He gives love to everybody, he doesn’t care. He just loves all the uniforms.

Caroline: It’s great. We all need a little bit of fluff joy, right?

Andrea: He’s a really good ice breaker. I got into this by taking him to stations to visit and give him exposure. There’s a lot of noise; the trucks are loud, the alarms. I wanted him to do everything he could at a really young age so he would not be spooked by any of it. That’s exactly what happened.

I noticed that when I started taking him, a lot of guys would start talking to me. I would be making small talk. They’d ask me questions. I’d start asking them questions like if they lived nearby. Most of the guys commute one to two hours. The price of living here is expensive.

We would start conversations, start opening up. I’d reach out to guys I’ve known for over twenty years who have started organizations, leadership or suicide awareness or prevention. We’d have these talks. Some of the departments provide mental health services but every department has a different level. There’s also a difference in how departments approach mental health. Some say, “Suck it up.” Others have peer support teams and support one another. That is not the norm.

That’s when I started switching over my coaching practice. So then, I was doing firefighters and domestic violence recovery and women’s empowerment. I found out I really enjoyed working with the firefighters and I got so much back from that.

Then, I saw such a huge need the more I researched, so I decided to go full on in this. I didn’t see a lot of firefighter support coaches. When I brought it up, I would get the typical eye rolling. Little by little, that attitude has been changing. The respect has come out and I think they feel more appreciated, especially since I can go in there and have a conversation about what’s going on in the fire world in general.

I understand the problems that are going on and I am a total advocate and support them. I always say when I’m at a fire or a hotel and I give out Ty’s cards and my own cards, that if they need anything while they’re out there, they can always reach out.

They don’t have time to make an appointment. They’re dealing with something, they’re just having a really bad day, they just want someone who they can talk to in private… I have an open door policy. I have a lot of firefighters who will reach out to my Twitter account or my LinkedIn account. They’ll say, “Hey, I’m just having a really, really bad day today. I have ten minutes; I can’t call because I’m at work and don’t want them to know. I just need someone to talk to for a few minutes.”

When I get as many messages as I do like that, it does make me question what’s going on with the services in their department. Why are they not comfortable using those services? There’s a huge whole in the mental health world for first responders.

Things need to change not only in the mental health world but in physical care. They’re not getting the physical level of care they need to recover from doctors that understand the job. That is one of the biggest complaints I hear on a daily basis is that, yes, they have people, but they don’t have a clue what’s going on.

Caroline: That’s always been a big gap with every avenue of every first responder life is that they get some resources but those people are not themselves first responders. It’s really hard to get the first responder to talk to that person. You might be an expert in therapy or back pain or pulmonary, but they don’t understand the requirements of first responder jobs.

The better version is sending them to a specialist who specializes in first responders and knows the fire job, the law enforcement job, search and rescue, EMS, whatever. First responders are much more likely to reach out then.

Andrea: I definitely get a different level of respect when I’m out talking to a crew than the other [therapy dog folks]. I hate to say it but the people who are with them are basically dog handlers. Ty and I are a team. Usually, when we go visit, he’s my ice breaker, he’s the one who gets requested. Once we’re talking, they start asking me how I got into it.

I started on my own and now I’m with FRC. They hear I used to be an EMT or married to a police officer or that I’ve been in the fire world for the last couple years. I get both sides, the wife or girlfriend side of the relationship and the first responder side. I’ve seen things that they see, heard things they’ve heard. It’s just a different mindset.

I’ve even heard from the counselors that I used to talk to. I’ve had a therapist say, “It’s not good for you to have the scanner on. It’s going to cause you anxiety.” But, no, not really. They don’t get it. Our normal level is at a different place. I used to joke about my kids that if they got a cut or a bloody nose, I’d say, “You’re fine.”

Caroline: My kids know that if they get hurt, their arm needs to fall off before they go to the ER.

Andrea: Exactly. My poor older daughter had a mom who was an EMT, a dad who was a police officer. I think high school life was a little hard for her. But it’s just a different world and a lot of people don’t get it. I think a lot of people go into relationships with this image of [first responder life.] I hear from so many younger women in the groups I’m in, “Holy smokes, he’s gone for a month. I’m pregnant or home with kids alone. I don’t hear from him because he doesn’t have phone service.”

Firefighting for them is their life. Some guys get completely immersed into it and they have a hard time separating. Some women think it’s so great that they only work a couple days a month. And some might, but for others it’s just a very different world. And it still doesn’t erase the things that they’re seeing and doing and the things they’re exposed to.

There’s more to it than toxic smoke. They might wear masks but not respirators. Also, there’s the mental health issues going on, post traumatic stress, anxiety, depression… I started seeing the more I was around the crews, how they cope, and unfortunately, most of the time it’s not in a healthy way. They would initially say, “It’s just [such-and-such]…” but I’d ask what’s really going on here. Then the wall starts to come down.

They’re proud. They don’t want people to see them break down, anything less than the big, strong firefighter hero. I’ve always made it clear there’s no judgment. I am here on the good and bad days. It’s okay to vent. You’re not working at a bank. You’re seeing and hearing things on a daily basis that the mind can only take so much. When you don’t manage it or let some steam off, it’s going to catch up with you.

Caroline: People forget that first responders are human too.

Andrea: One of my favorite quotes is, “Firefighters are not machines.” You can’t have them working nonstop with one day off and hardly any sleep. They’re not eating well, they’re drinking too much caffeine, the stress levels… Their bodies start to fall apart; their minds start to fall apart. I started to dive into cancer rates, mental health issues, cardiovascular, everything. What are ways we can promote healthier firehouse living and healthier living for them when off duty?

Caroline: What are the hours like where you are? For instance the firehouse guys as opposed to the fire jumpers.

Andrea: Right now, everyone is understaffed, so there’s a lot of mando (mandatory overtime). It depends on the city, but many of them are about two days on and a couple days off and it rotates. A Cal Fire guy might go in for Thursday through Saturday and stay there. But there’s always a risk of getting called out to a fire out of the area. He could be gone for a week or many weeks. City guys are dealing with getting called out on strike teams because California is having so many fires.

I was talking to a guy in the county department and he’s not even with the station but he had to come up and cover because they’re short-staffed. One of the biggest issues is that they’re working at about 70%. There’s no line up at the Academy.

Caroline: We are seeing that nationally. I’m not sure about globally, but it is national from New Hampshire, down south, the academies aren’t full, more are leaving than are joining. Departments are just crushed.

Andrea: Definitely. That puts a lot of pressure on crews. They’re getting run into the ground. I’ve seen it lighten up a tiny bit, but we’re having more fires now.

Caroline: I know California has a particular season, but is this fire season lasting a little longer than it has in the past?

Andrea: Oh absolutely. From what I’m hearing, September has been crazy and I’m hearing it’s going to go into November at this point. We’re not getting rain.

Caroline: That’s late for California fires.

Andrea: Yeah, usually for fire season we’re pretty good by October the latest. I don’t really think there is a fire season for us. It’s really year round. A lot of the Cal Fire guys are seasonal. A lot of them have April, May, and June off, but I question that because there’s still fire going on. When the strike teams are out, the guys here have to cover.

We have five or six stations. If one of the stations is gone for a week, they rotate the guys right back in and the other crew leaves. But if something happens up here… Really everybody has to cover everybody. We’re very jumpy about fire here since the 2020 CZU; that went on for a month. People are still recovering and that was lightning strikes. It’s really dry up here. We got a ton of rain in the beginning of the year and everything grew and now everything’s super dry.

Caroline: Everybody’s short-staffed everywhere. They’re going in for weeks at a time, coming back, and have to go right back in to cover. Sounds like they’re getting fewer breaks and breathing room. You’re seeing that and they’re telling you this when you go in there with Ty or they’re reaching out to you.

Andrea: I hear it from the wives and girlfriend groups. I see with my own, with his behavior. I know it’s not just him. There’s something going on in that fire world where they’re not recharging. I’m seeing more relationship issues, more guys that are shutting down, more PTSD. They’re not getting the downtime they need.

Caroline: What do you think would be a first step towards helping to alleviate the no breaks and overworked parts?

Andrea: There has to be rules, and I know that’s hard if they have calls. I think naps are huge. Their bodies need [sleep] if they’re up all night. It’s not healthy to be running on caffeine all the time. A lot of stations are doing this, making stations more sleep-friendly, having individual rooms, blackout curtains, white noise devices, making it a healthier atmosphere.

I am seeing that come into play more, healthier eating and being able to work out instead of work, work, work all the time. The biggest thing is making sure when these guys have time off, they have time off. They can get sleep, they can go home. It is so hard for them to switch gears, especially if they have families.

I talk to a lot of wives who have the honey-do list when they walk in the door; they’re tired. They’ve been on a crew for a week straight or in a different hotel every other night. They just need to go home and be by themselves, decompress, sleep, and shut off. This world isn’t for everybody and it’s really hard on relationships.

Caroline: It’s important for significant others to realize when they have their responder home, they need to decompress; they’re not all the way home yet.

Andrea: Exactly, there needs to be education and support for everybody. The wives and girlfriends [are] such a supportive group. The older ones who have been in this for years help the younger ones who are shell-shocked.

I love that these guys reach out to me but I wish they could reach out without lurking in the shadows. Whenever I see these crews and hand out Ty’s card and my card, I say, “If you ever need anything, please don’t hesitate to reach out. I am always here for you, even if you have ten minutes that you need to vent.” A lot of them will make appointments and reschedule and reschedule. It’s that fear of opening up or being found out or admitting they’re not okay. It’s that fear of facing their own demons.

Caroline: To start that conversation is hard but once they’re in it’s good. I’m glad they’re reaching out to you.

Andrea: I’ve learned to be patient. It’s baby steps but I say, but I love it when I get a message a week or two later. I had a Hot Shot I was working with who couldn’t sleep in his bed. A while later, I asked how it was going and he said he was sleeping in his bed. “It’s awesome. I’m home and it feels more normal and my relationship feels more normal.”

Caroline: So good to hear! I think what you do with Ty is awesome. Thank you so much for joining me on this Spotlight. I wish you all the best with all the advocacy things that you’re doing out in California as our West Coast representation.

Andrea: I’m happy to do it. I’m so happy to be part of this group. I’m so excited about everything we’re doing, helping first responders, and seeing the mindset changing.

Caroline: It’s people like you who are making big differences.

Folks, you can check out Ty’s Instagram or Facebook pages and see what that lovable pup is up to. Also, keep watching our FRC Facebook page to see all the news. So much more to do to change those mindsets, bring resources to the ground level, and help our helpers.