Spotlight: Don Pemberton, Firefighter/Paramedic and 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: Today’s Spotlight features Don Pemberton. Don is a fourth generation firefighter, a paramedic, and a life coach with us at First Responder Coaching. Don has been in the fire service for twenty two years, working in California and Nevada. Don enrolled in The Life Coach School with Jody More and Brooke Castillo and was working on a weight loss program for first responders when our CEO and founder, Jen Anderson, reached out to him and hired him with FRC. Don wants to close the gap between what first responders have available to them for mental health services currently and what they need.

Don, thank you for joining me and how are you today?

Don: I am great. It’s good to be with you. 

Caroline: Excellent! So, let’s just get right into it today. I know you have done a lot of work and you have a lot to contribute to this Spotlight. Talk about the gap between what first responders have available and what they need. What would you like to bring to the table for that?

Don: So, I think one of the things I’ve seen talked about a lot right now is the stigma. A lot of people are resistant to getting help, resistant to talking about the calls, or talking about the coping mechanisms that are not healthy and not supporting them. They’re using [those methods] to get through the work that we do. One of the things that has really come up for me in the last six months is that I am picking old scabs; I’m bringing up old wounds from about twenty two years in emergency services.

Through coaching and through the awareness of what coaching brings, it really helps me to – in a more healthy way – manage the things that we’re dealing with. When I listen to other podcasts, when I talk to other firefighters, we all experience very, very similar things and we all have our own ways of dealing with it and some of those ways are healthy and some of those ways are very destructive.

Caroline: Yeah, there is a huge difference amongst departments across the country, but there’s also a great similarity between the stressors and everything that people are dealing with and the lack of ability to deal with those things. What are some of the things that first responders in your experience have been able to do to reach out – which is not enough – so that we can talk about that gap?

Don: Currently, you have to wait until a terrible incident happens. And you get a group of responders that respond to an incredibly traumatic event – typically involving a child, typically involving someone they know – it’s just a call that is so out of the ordinary that it basically shakes everybody. Then, as a result of that, within 24-48-72 hours, you get everybody in a room and you go around the room and you do what’s called a critical incident stress debriefing.

That debriefing is very helpful in some aspects that it gives others an opportunity to see different aspects of the call that they may not have been a part of that helps them kind of fill the gaps in their mind as to the progression of the incident. But once that meeting is over, there is very, very little follow up. There is no support; there’s no nothing. So, you take this group of responders, you put them through a tremendous stressor and then you send them on their way with a business card and a flier and with some advice.

I think that the most dangerous place on earth for a first responder to be is at home alone with no one to support them in a time of emotional crisis. And for the last several years more firefighters, police officers, paramedics, and EMTs have taken their own lives more than have died doing the dangerous job that we do in the line of duty. I think this kind of illuminates that gap in between: we’re good at managing the stuff at work, but once you leave work, and if the challenge that you’re facing doesn’t have to do with a critical call, you’re very much on your own.

Caroline: Yes. An interesting conversation I’ve had with several first responders is that it seems that they manage the terrible, bad things that they see on the job but what seems to be consistent is that may trigger something but that’s not the sole underlying cause of their inner trauma or their inner PTSD or whatever it is that’s drawing them to this downward spiral. It’s not – to quote someone – the dead babies or the burnt grandmas. It’s not that itself; it’s something deeper than that. So, let’s take a journey over that gap. What’s on the other side of that gap that we could bring to give better care to our first responders.

Don: Well, I think the most important thing is that it starts before that critical incident. So, if you have a person who is struggling either with something in their family, something at their job, something is already brewing beneath the surface and it’s unmanaged, then you have that critical call… You’re basically taking someone who is already in a very vulnerable, very difficult situation and you push them over the edge. So, if they were barely managing to take care of their family, managing to keep up that happy face, keep up that façade that everything is okay, and then run these critical calls that we are inevitably going to run… Then you take this untenable situation and make it worse.

So, I think the most important thing as an education piece is that we can make our services available in an easy, frictionless, accessible way so that those that are already finding themselves struggling with their day-to-day things have a resource to go to. Then once that critical incident occurs, and as a company officer or as an emergency responder you’re seeing people around you, there should be a mechanism in place.

You can either anonymously or otherwise let your supervisor or First Responder Coaching [coach] know that this person is exhibiting symptoms of struggling with an incident. Then give them, encourage them, to get them into a coaching session to be able to speak with someone. I think that the myth that you’re going to figure this out on your own is a very dangerous one. If you allow people to figure this out on their own, they are going to make choices that they may regret later.

Caroline: Yes, we do need to get to this before the critical incident happens. And I think that’s the number one place in the gap. You said the place it’s starting now is that the critical incident happens, they do a debriefing – which is great, that needs to happen – but it’s almost like they’re missing the first ten steps. 

Don: Yeah. When I was putting together a presentation, I wanted to come up with an analogy that spoke to firefighters. And so I talked about the difference between a smoke detector and a sprinkler system.

The smoke detector is going to identify those early fires, those invisible products of combustion, all of those things, well before the fire maybe even has a chance to start. Then once the fire has fully involved the entire room and it gets hot enough, then that sprinkler system activates. It releases the water, the extinguishing agent, and it puts out that fire. But unfortunately a lot of times, prior to that sprinkler system activating, tremendous amount of damage is taking place. Once that sprinkler system is activated, sometimes the ability to save the room or the environment has already been lost.

So, using that analogy and utilizing coaching – and the mindset around coaching – as that early warning sprinkler system, we can prevent our first responders from getting to that point of no return or that point of crisis. [We can] get them into being able to manage and release some of that pressure and look at the challenges through a different lens [using] all of the different tools and techniques that we use in coaching in a really, really strategic and effective manner.

Caroline: I love that analogy because we kind of want to be the fire alarm and the sprinkler system happens after. We want to shed light on what’s happening; we want to say, “Hey, smoke!” We want to do that before it’s a fully involved room and contents blaze.

Don: Yeah, so we certainly need to have those sprinkler systems available. And as a coach, part of your coach training is recognizing when they are beyond your ability to kind of turn them around or they’re giving you kind of clues. “Hey, I am in a very deep dark place. I thought about things; I’ve made plans.” “I have backed away from plans.”

All of those types of trigger words for us as coaches… We need to get the traditional medical authority, the clinicians, all of those people in place before this goes any further. Because I know my role; I know my lane. If they are beyond my ability to turn them around, or we’re not getting anywhere, or I’m very concerned about their safety, then we need those sprinkler systems in place. But if we can prevent that sprinkler system from ever activating through coaching, through mentorship, or through peer support, then you’re going to have the best possible outcome.

Caroline: Yes. So, we talked about the gap. We talked about where things are now and where things should be. You made a great analogy to illustrate all that. Now let’s just take a minute to talk about how we can get there. What’s our avenue to cross that gap?

Don: I personally believe that the peer coaching model is the best way to go. Having people locally in your fire department, in your agency, that are trained on the techniques of coaching and that are trained on the ability to help each other is the gold standard or the best way to go. Unfortunately, that takes a lot of time, effort, energy, and money to get those systems in place.

I think that’s where FRC has really positioned ourselves. We’re kind of a professional peer support network of nationwide coaches that have a good amount of training that know what it’s like to be a first responder, a first responder spouse, or a retired first responder. We have the ability to use our tools to get these first responders that are in crisis, that are struggling, where they need to be.

Caroline: Now, you’re currently still in fire service, correct?

Don: Yes. I’m a firefighter/paramedic in the city of Henderson Fire Department.

Caroline: The funny thing is that a lot of us at First Responder Coaching are retired or family members of retired responders. It’s great because you still have your boots on the ground. You’re still very much in it and yet you find the time in the millions of hours in the week – how do you find those because I’d like to! – to do all of this advocating and to do this coaching. I know you’ve offered free coaching sessions here and there. I hope people reach out to you and jump on that because it’s a great opportunity.

Anyone who’s reading this, look up Don Pemberton because he’s always throwing lots of bones out to all of us. I think that’s so great! You’re already bushwhacking and leading the charge through a lot of this. What can others do at home to promote this step forward?

Don: I think there’s a huge educational piece as a coach in FRC, and I feel like there is a huge opportunity for us to be able to create either self assessments or utilize coaching tools. One of my favorite coaching tools that I use is called a Thought Download.

The great thing about a Thought Download is that you can do as many as you need and you can do it for any situation you find yourself in. So, sometimes at the end of the day, I’ll sit down and I’ll just empty all the thoughts I have down on a piece of paper, and just that process itself is very therapeutic. At the same time, you find yourself struggling with someone or with something, there’s something that’s going on in your life that is causing you to not show up or not be how you want… You do that Thought Download on something that’s so specific.

Then the next step for me is I’m going to separate out the facts from the thoughts. And then once I’ve got all my facts separated, I’m going to tell myself a story using only the facts. Usually that story gets really, really boring. It helps me to see that all of my thoughts are creating the feelings that I’m having.

I think that The Wheel of Life, the Thought Downloads, all the amazing tools that we have… I think as a company, we need to make those more accessible and more available to first responders across the nation, because they’re going to be able to help coach themselves and they’re going to discover the fact that they do need help and they do need someone – an uninvolved third-party – that’s going to look at their story, give them the space to be able to figure out their own situation, and to be able to coach them along that process.

Awareness that you have a problem is amazing, and it’s a great first step, but just because we’re aware that we have a problem does it mean that we personally have the tools to be able to make steps to fix or remedy that problem. So, I think that to get coaching into the mainstream, to get coaching into the fire houses, with the police stations, into the private ambulance companies, and other agencies that are out there, we need to make coaching as normal and as a regular part of the mental health process.

Even if someone doesn’t get coached, but they use the techniques of coaching and they can improve themselves even just a little bit, I think we’ve done our job and we’ve taken one small step forward to help first responders to be more aware of their thoughts and to help them make better choices.

Caroline: That’s great because some of the basic resources we have as coaches with the first couple of steps we do with a new coaching partner, The Wheel of Life, the Thought Download, the Values Rating sheet, any of those, all that kind of stuff…

Even if someone were to sit down and do that, saying, “My head’s in a fog. I can’t get my act together.” They sit down and do one of those worksheets and think about it for a little while. You’re not paying a coach, you’re not going through your department, and you’re not telling people that you’re having issues.

Even just that one step can kind of shed the light for them to say, “Oh, maybe I do need help,” or, “I never thought about this this way.” We’ve talked about that tons of times here at FRC, changing perspective and that reflecting back aspect of coaching.

Don: It’s so amazing to have somebody come to you with a Thought Download, or come to you with a very specific situation that bothered you, because as a coach that helps you get really focused in on what exactly it was that bothered you or that twisted you up or whatever it was about that.

Then, you know, at The Life Coach School, they talk about “all roads lead to Rome.” You take one incident and you drill down and drill down, you peel back the layers, then suddenly it’s like, “Hey, this incident bothered me because of this incident and this incident, and this person…” And it all kind of comes together, and that one really good discovery that you have for yourself can illuminate multiple aspects of your life.

Caroline: Yes, absolutely! Those are great tools to use and we do want to get all of those things into all of our departments: fire, police, EMS, dispatch, even emergency nursing. Coaching is good for everybody. We’re kind of fans of coaching here at FRC. But it is beneficial to absolutely anybody, so we want to get those tools available to our departments and all of our agencies. Is there anything else that you want to bring to this Spotlight?

Don: So, I think that what has driven me to this point is that I am not the type of person that wants to walk by a problem. If I see something that’s wrong, if I see that there’s an issue, I am the type of person that will go out of my way to try to fix it. What I’ve seen over the last twenty two years of emergency services, having experienced on my own…

I’m a fourth generation firefighter; my grandfather was a twenty five year veteran on the fire service. He lasted sixteen months after his retirement and took his own life. One of the firefighters that I work with, he had his own struggles and he took his own life. And even though those examples are tragic and they’re horrible, there are so many thousands – if not hundreds of thousands – of responders out there that are not being the people that they could be. They’re not being the fathers, the mothers, the wives, the members of their department that they could be. So many of those have an opportunity to get better, to show up better, to be better.

Utilizing coaching, utilizing the resources that we have, and just having somebody to reach out to can get them to where they need to be. So, I feel like I’m doing a lot right now, and I’m juggling my family and my career, the coaching, everything else, but I think that it’s so worth it. There’s so many people out there that are struggling and don’t know about this resource. You know, if I can prevent one person from doing something that harms themselves, or allows somebody to be the best that they can – either on the job or at home – then it’s completely worth it.

Caroline: Yes, it is absolutely about bringing the best out in people because in this world, in these times, we’re definitely seeing a lot of the worst. We want to get people to their best because we’ll perform better, we’ll live better, we’ll be better. That’s what we want for our first responders; we want them to be better for themselves.

Don: This is an abnormal job. You shouldn’t have to see the worst day of someone’s life every single time you go to work over and over and over again. I think that we look at First Responders like superheroes. We look at them and everyone says, “Oh, thank you for your service!” Then you have someone who is struggling, and you’re like, “Hey, where is the help? Where is the support and all the things that we need?”

Caroline: People start to expect too much.

Don: Exactly! And then we end up in the situation where you’ve got nothing to support people and that’s it. And to me, that’s tragic to have somebody that dedicates their life to helping others and then when it’s time for them to need help, that help isn’t there.

Caroline: Absolutely, it’s so true. That’s definitely one stigma we really need to change. We need to get that turned around.

Don, thank you for joining us and sharing all of your wisdom and experience. We look forward to continuing working with you and working to close that gap between what first responders have and what they need. We look forward to continuing to reach out and share those resources and get our first responders the help that they need in a more accessible and tangible manner, even if it’s just some tools that they can use at home.

Don: Yes, thank you so much!

Caroline: Hey everyone, there’s a good chance you can meet Don and myself at an upcoming conference in the Boston area. The 1st Responder Conference is happening September 8th and 9th and taking place in Woburn, MA. We hope you can come out and enjoy all it has to offer and come by the FRC table and meet us! Until then, keep spreading the word and sharing what you can.