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Orange County Fire Authority's therapy dog helps firefighters deal with mental stress, suicidal thoughts

Jul 18, 2023

SANTA ANA, Calif. (KABC) -- Not every fire department dog is there to help with search and rescue operations or sniff out chemicals for arson investigations.

Some are there just to play and help firefighters relieve their stress.

Pax, a 3-year-old yellow lab retriever, works with the Orange County Fire Authority as a therapy dog for firefighters, who can face extraordinary amounts of stress as they save lives and property.

"He loves playing fetch, he loves playing with his toys, he loves treats," says Wade Munson, Pax's handler with OCFA.

Firefighters are usually the first to arrive on scene of a disaster or trauma. They often see the worst moments in people's lives and face high-risk situations.

Pax and his handler help crews process the unthinkable, which can range from high stress to suicidal thoughts.

The Firefighter Behaviorial Health Alliance has tracked nearly 1,200 firefighter and EMS worker suicides, averaging about 130 a year from 2014 to 2023. In fact, most years, more firefighters die from suicide than in the line of duty.

OCFA Fire Chief Brian Fennessy says Pax is a resource to help the agency prioritize mental health, and he'd like to see more K9s in that role.

"Our firefighters are proud of what they do," Fennessy says. "They are sworn to protect the community. But in that there's going to be some scar tissue along the way. Certainly peer support, a K9 - just one is a start. I'd like to see us at least with three."