LivingWorks training pays dividends at Oxnard Fire Department

California’s Oxnard Fire Department has become a leading example of suicide intervention training for first responders—and has seen considerable returns as a result. The story began with Battalion Chief Alex Hamilton’s goal of improving the department’s behavioral health and ability to look out for one another. “We’re a hundred-member fire department and we’d had some significant behavioral health issues, including a couple of suicide attempts. Over the space of a five-year period leading up to 2012, when we actually ran the numbers, we’d spent nearly $750,000 on mental health issues in terms of workers’ compensation.”

Alex received grant funding to launch a comprehensive behavioral health program for his department. “I basically drew in anyone I could find from around the country in the fire service who had experience doing this. I heard about LivingWorks programs from a clinical psychologist who works with FDNY fire department in New York. Using our grant money, myself and two of our peer support personnel went to an ASIST T4T, and then the three of us went to a safeTALK T4T. We trained our whole peer support team in ASIST, and for some of the neighboring brigades, we trained their peer support personnel as well.”

With designated caregivers trained in ASIST, Alex’s team rolled out safeTALK to the rest of the department. This enabled a layered training model where safeTALK-trained helpers could link colleagues with ASIST intervention resources, maximizing their reach and impact. “I feel like I almost happened on LivingWorks by accident, but it has been huge for us,” Alex said. “The ASIST training for our peer support personnel has given them so much confidence in knowing they can handle these situations.”

The department’s trainers are now deploying safeTALK on a wider scale. “We’re halfway through teaching safeTALK to every firefighter in the county—about 500 or 600 people,” Alex noted. “It’s just so tangible, and so easy for our guys to grasp. It really resonates with them.”

The results have been remarkable. In addition to increased knowledge, confidence, and readiness, the trainings have contributed to a significant return on investment. “Since rolling the training out, we have not had a single workers’ comp claim for stress or behavioral health issues,” said Alex. “It’s been a radical turnaround. I really do think the organization is more resilient and stronger as a result of the work that we’ve been doing.” Momentum is also building across the state, with interest from other California departments and a partnership to train Oxnard’s police department—about 250 personnel—in safeTALK.

Following the success at Oxnard Fire Department, Alex has words of advice for other first response leaders: “Suicide intervention training has to be made a priority. It’s really hard to make it a priority for all the reasons we talk about in safeTALK: people think suicide is rare, or it’s not going to happen to them. But we all have a responsibility to educate ourselves on signs and symptoms and how we can reduce that risk. And we have to not just make it a priority, but keep it a priority.”

We congratulate Alex and his colleagues on all they’ve achieved, and thank them for their commitment to making their organization and community safer from suicide.