Working as a first responder is a career rife with stress. Moving from one traumatic situation to the next, constantly interacting with people as they go through some of the worst moments of their lives, can take an immense toll on EMS workers mentally and emotionally.
So when Battalion Chief James Anderson, of Berkeley County (S.C.) EMS, read about a North Carolina EMS organization that used therapy dogs to help relieve first responders’ trauma and stress, he knew something similar could help his team.
After talking about the idea with his boss and with Berkeley County Compliance Chief Edward Roth, the groundwork was laid for what would become the Canine Assistance Support Team (CAST). The next step would be finding an organization capable of providing and training the dogs for service. Georgia-based Companions for Heroes, a nonprofit created to assist service members suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, was a natural fit.
Roth reached out to Companions for Heroes and found a dog who fit the bill for Berkeley County: an adorable, very talented 1-year-old black Lab named Scarlett. After Scarlett completed a rigorous 240-hour training program, she arrived at Berkeley County EMS as the first member of its Canine Assistance Support Team (CAST) in July of 2021.
Keeping with Companions for Heroes’ mission, Scarlett is trained to offer mental health support to EMS dispatchers, first responders, and hospital workers who are dealing with the emotional stress or feelings of grief that often follow a traumatic emergency call.
“We’re the first ones in S.C. to have this program in this way,” Anderson says. “We just spend time with people. The majority of these people are my coworkers; I see them a lot. They feel that she truly does help them reset after a traumatic event.”
“She’ll just sit there with them and you can sort of see them relax,” he continues. “Even when we’re at home, she’ll be able to tell when I’m feeling stressed, then she’ll come over to me and put her head on my lap. She’s got a very calming presence.”
Initially, Roth, not Anderson, was supposed to be Scarlett’s primary handler. However, soon after the warm-hearted Lab joined the team, Anderson and Scarlett formed a deep bond, and it became clear he would take over Scarlett’s care and handling. Now, the pair not only covers Berkeley County EMS’s service area, going wherever their first responders need to be met, but Anderson goes out of his way to lend the CAST program’s services to nearby agencies as well.
“We’ve had a few departments reach out,” he says. “They’ll call and say, ‘Hey we’ve had this incident, can we borrow her?’ Morale has definitely improved. People are more receptive to talk about things. She brings joy to people.”
“We travel to different sites every day, checking in on teams or responding to calls,” he adds. “Whenever people see me, they know that she isn’t far behind and they’ll ask ‘where’s Scarlett?’ As soon as she hears her name, she comes running over.”
In fact, Scarlett has been so successful in helping these heroes stay healthy and focused on their jobs that Berkeley County CAST has added a second dog, a 3-year-old Australian shepherd and Lab mix named Darby, handled by Roth.
“She’s another Companions for Heroes dog,” Anderson says. “When [Companions for Heroes founder David Sharpe] heard about all the good that we’ve been doing with Scarlett, he reached out and offered his dog as a second member of our team.”
The amazing work Anderson, Roth, and the CAST program have done couldn’t have been possible without the passion and dedication of Companions for Heroes, their volunteers, and staff. Now, Anderson’s story has helped Companions for Heroes win a $1,000 grant, courtesy of Petco Love and BOBS from Skechers as part of their Petco Love Stories campaign.
After seeing what the CAST program has done for his fellow first responders, Anderson fully believes in the efficacy of the program and would love to see other departments across the country adopt something similar for their own workers.
“Just reach out to me if you have any questions,” he offers. “We’ve got a good program. I’ve seen it work.”