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Dear Chief

Dear Fire or Police Chief,

Who takes care of you and your staff? If you have a chaplain who is really engaged with your department, he or she will be spending a lot of time with your people. Many chaplains have advanced degrees and/or training in counseling. Many of them have years of schooling and training to get where they are now, serving you, your people, and the public you—and they—have sworn to protect.

Much of what a chaplain does cannot be seen. A police lieutenant once said to his senior chaplain, “I’ve really grown to appreciate what you chaplains do. You’re not in our faces. You are there when we need you and then you blend back into background until we need you the next time.” While that may seem like a backhanded compliment (hey, if we need you, we’ll call you…), it does make the point that much what your chaplain does is behind the scenes.

What the chaplain does includes one-on-one counseling, walking with your firefighter or police officer through problems they encounter at home or work. Due to confidentiality stipulations, you probably wouldn't even hear about it. What about the time your chaplain spends with your people at the station, department, or doing ride-alongs? It might seem that he or she isn’t doing much but just “being there” builds the relational bridges that help others trust your chaplain when things get rough. Don't forget the hours your chaplain may spend staying with the family of a cardiac arrest patient or with a family that has lost all their possessions in a devastating fire for hours after others have left, helping them begin dealing with grief and loss.

Undoubtedly your chaplain loves his or her work. Just like a firefighter or police officer, he or she may find the job addicting. For a chaplain, helping people is more than a passion, it's a calling. And it's worth doing right! That will mean he or she is investing a lot of physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual energy, time, and resources in helping the people that you have entrusted to their care.

But who takes care of your chaplain? Most of the chaplains are in single-chaplain agencies that have no peers in the department to talk with and debrief the bad calls. And yes, chaplains have bad calls just like you and your firefighters/police officers. Dealing with a grieving family at 2am for hours at a time can be emotionally and physically draining. We can think of many days, in our times as chaplains, with the police and fire department when we had to get up the next day and had very little left in the tank to give our employers and family members.

Chief, how are you taking care of your chaplain(s)? Here are six ideas.

Six Ways to Support Your Chaplain(s)

1. Support networking.

Help them get connected with other chaplains for support and training. Pay for their annual dues to the International Conference of Police Chaplains (ICPC) or the Federation of Fire Chaplains (FFC) and encourage them to be part of a chaplain association. And if you are from South Carolina encourage them to be part of the South Carolina Public Safety Chaplains Association (SCPSCA) and pay their annual dues. For you, this is a small price to pay, but this might be a big help for small-town clergy persons who comprise the vast majority of public safety chaplains in our country.

2. Cover expenses.

Could you create a line item in the budget for the chaplain? This allows them to spend without them having to take $$ from their pocket each time they talk with one of your firefighters/police officers over a cup of coffee or travel to incident scenes using their personal vehicles.

3. Get them training.

Send them to training to better update their skills. Consider underwriting a basic chaplain training course through ICPC and FFC to enhance their chaplaincy skillset. Look into advanced training such as taught by the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation (ICISF). Having additional skills enables them to be more effective in what they do. As specialists, they won't get all the training they need through your regular drills or in-staff training. Attending chaplain-specific training and networking with other chaplains will benefit your department immeasurably with a competent, confident chaplain. After all, chaplains need to be proficient in what they do every bit as much as your officers/firefighters need proficiency in their professions.

At the same time, make sure your chaplain(s) has/have the opportunity to participate in regular drills and block training. Chaplains may not need to be fully skilled in everything your first responders do, but being trained in some of their basic skills allows for awareness of what your folks do in their jobs, and gets your people in contact with your chaplain on an informal basis. (Also, it is our opinion that everyone should know CPR.)

4. Encourage time off.

We all like a good volunteer who will show up always when needed, but encourage your chaplain(s) to take time off. Setting some boundaries to be "off the clock" and away from the department will allow them to "stand down" and recover. This will help prevent burnout and compassion fatigue (the care provider’s form of trauma).

5. Consider the chaplain part of the team.

If you have a small department with volunteers, make sure your chaplain(s) is/are considered full member(s) of the department. They are not some add-on or outside EAP program. Though a volunteer, your chaplain is really an unpaid staff member and part of the larger dynamic of your department. This will tell your people that this person is one of them and not an outsider who doesn't know what they have been through.

6. Hire a professional chaplain.

While many chaplains serve as volunteers, that isn’t always enough. If you have a larger, paid staff-department, consider hiring a chaplain, either part- or full-time. There are currently five full-time paid chaplains in South Carolina public safety agencies. You can do it as the government hires chaplains all the time. Don't just hire your local pastor from down the street unless he or she has the requisite qualifications. There is a big difference between being a pastor/imam/priest/rabbi of a local congregation and being a chaplain. Look instead for someone who has a Master’s degree and/or other specific training in chaplaincy, and one who is a member of a national and/or state public safety chaplaincy organization, previously mentioned. Hire a professional chaplain. You won’t be disappointed.

Many a public safety department has said that they didn’t need chaplains or know what they could offer. But, after they brought one or more chaplains on board, they didn’t know what they would ever do without one. National public safety accrediting agencies are becoming increasingly aware of the value of chaplains and are asking “do you have a chaplain?” And, if so, “show us what they’re doing for your department in caring for your firefighters/officers.” Taking that a step further, the next question from them will be, “And what are you doing to take care of them?” We hope that we have given you some ideas.

The South Carolina Public Safety Chaplain Association is here to assist you in starting a chaplaincy program and help provide you with criteria for selecting chaplains.

Blessings!

Chaplains Dave DeDonato & Chris Wade

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Dave DeDonato is a Master Chaplain with the Federation of Fire Chaplains and a Master-Level Chaplain with the International Conference of Police Chaplains. He currently serves as the President of the South Carolina Public Safety Chaplains Association.

Chris Wade is a Master Chaplain with the Federation of Fire Chaplains. He currently serves as the Vice President of the South Carolina Public Safety Chaplains Association.

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