SALEM — Police and fire chaplains from around the state attended the weeklong second annual Oregon Chaplains Academy last week at the Oregon Public Safety Academy.
“A lot of people don’t know we have public safety chaplains,” said Eriks Gabliks, director of the Department of Public Safety Standards and Training.
First responders are often running to the sites of emergencies that people would rather run away from. Public safety chaplains do the same, according to Gabliks.
“It’s all about providing that wraparound support,” Gabliks said.
From mental health resourcing to death notification, chaplains are there. For first responders, their families and the victims of tragedies, they are ready on call 24/7.
There are around 50 public safety chaplain programs in Oregon, according to Gabliks. Some fire and police departments don’t have an official program, but do have a chaplain.
“For years, agencies would ask someone to be a chaplain, but there were no trainings,” Gabliks said.
The Oregon Chaplains Academy was started by a group of chaplains two years ago. They offer a “basic” course in chaplaincy, and are planning an “advanced” course in the fall.
“When men and women, who want to be chaplains, come out of this program, they are certified as chaplains with police and fire,” said Hermiston Chaplain Terry Cummings.
Aside from OCA, the International Conference of Police Chaplains also offers certification trainings.
Topics cover a wide range, from the functional aspects of public safety equipment to mental health aid.
A springtime course makes perfect timing, Gabliks said, since fire season occurs so soon after. But also because more firefighters and police officers are committing suicide in the U.S. than ever previously documented.
And in 2017, according to a study conducted by the Ruderman Foundation in Boston, while 93 firefighters died on the job, 103 took their own lives. While 129 police officers died in the line of duty, 140 died by their own hand.
First responders are also at risk of developing depression, substance abuse issues, stress, and post-traumatic stress symptoms, according to a report released by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health administration last May.
“We can’t not address these stress issues,” Gabliks said.
Hermiston Police Department Chaplain Aaron Johnson and Umatilla Police Department Chaplain Peggy O’Neal were in attendance at the OCA last week. O’Neal says she feels she knows a network of chaplains in the state she can call for help and support.
O’Neal is the first of her kind in the city of Umatilla, and has yet to do any work in the field.
A recent retiree from the Port of Morrow and volunteer at Two Rivers Correctional Facility since 2004, she hadn’t heard of public safety chaplains until last year.
“Who takes care of you guys?” O’Neal asked UPD Chief Darla Huxel during a New Year’s Eve ride-along last year. Before O’Neal began chaplaincy, Umatilla relied on the Hermiston Police Department Chaplaincy program for support.
“Everything is new to me,” O’Neal said. “I’m looking forward to this. I feel this is where God is leading me.”
The chaplain program at the Hermiston Police Department was formalized in October 2011 and currently consists of three chaplains.
Since that time, they’ve received uniforms, seminars and trainings. They offer support on everything from suicide risk to marriage and family well-being, in a room that looks something of a therapist’s office.
“They’re here as a sounding board for officers and fire personnel,” said Hermiston Police Chief Jason Edmiston.
The subject matter they speak on with the first responders is confidential.
“In a profession where focus on personnel is remiss, it has been a blessing to have them here,” Edmiston said.