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BCBSNM Grant Supports Albuquerque Fire Rescue Crisis Response Canine

Wrigley may be relatively new to her job at Albuquerque Fire Rescue (AFR), but she’s already making a big impact on everyone she meets.

Like many in her field, Wrigley helps people reduce their blood pressure, decrease their stress hormones and increase their endorphins, those chemicals in our bodies that make us feel good and lessen pain. She helps individuals struggling with isolation, anxiety, addiction and other physical and mental health conditions. 

AFR Lt. Jake Gray says Wrigley is a department favorite.

And she’s awfully cute.

The two-year-old labradoodle works with Lt. Gray in AFR’s Home Engagement and Alternative Response Team, also known as the HEART program.

Addressing long-term needs through community paramedicine

The community paramedic HEART program started about three years ago with the goal of reducing call volume for the fire department. In 2018, AFR responded to more than 110,000 calls. The department compared that number to Colorado Springs, a city with similar demographics, which responded to 40,000 calls during the same period.

“We ran almost three times as many calls as Colorado Springs,” Lt. Gray said.

Not only is high call volume tough on first responders’ mental health, but it could also indicate that callers may need additional resources to help prevent emergencies and address their long-term needs.

HEART focuses on those needs with several components: repeat patient, harm reduction and fall prevention programs.

In the repeat patient program, AFR paramedics visit and work with recurring 911 callers from 30 days to six months to connect them with needed health and social services.

The harm reduction program addresses emergency calls in which Narcan, a drug used to treat opioid overdoses, was administered. For those patients, AFR can conduct a home visit with a peer support counselor and connect patients with addiction treatment resources.  

One of the most common types of calls AFR receives is related to falls. In cases where an individual is experiencing frequent falls and calling 911, the fall prevention program can provide a home assessment and modifications — such as installing ramps, grab bars or raised toilets — to reduce fall risk.

Building trust and reducing barriers

While AFR has been successful in reducing call volume since the HEART program started, paramedics found that some clients were hesitant to open up.

“Our uniform would get us in the door, but people were apprehensive to speak with us about what they were really struggling with,” Lt. Gray said. “We started looking into different resources that we could use to establish trust.”

That’s when the idea of a crisis response canine surfaced. The dogs are specially bred, selected and trained to connect with people who are in crisis. While effective, such a program is also costly. In addition to the cost of Wrigley herself, a specialized vehicle was needed to keep her safe on the job.

Fortunately, AFR received grants to help establish and sustain the initiative, including a $12,000 grant from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of New Mexico (BCBSNM) that allowed AFR to upgrade a vehicle into the required canine unit, which includes a kennel, air conditioning and sensors that will notify Lt. Gray if the air conditioning turns off or if it gets too hot or cold for Wrigley’s safety. This ensures that Wrigley is protected and ready to serve the community.

“This program wouldn’t have been able to succeed without this grant,” Lt. Gray said.

Depending on the client’s preference during a home visit, Wrigley can jump up on the couch and rest her head in the client’s lap or just sit quietly nearby. Meanwhile, paramedics can talk to the client about their goals and needs, working as a team to identify resources and solutions.    

In the short time she’s been visiting people in the HEART program, Wrigley has proved to be a vital team member in building trust and reducing barriers for vulnerable community members.

“We’ve had two specific clients who were incredibly resistant and ambivalent towards getting the help they needed for their drug addiction, and after visiting with Wrigley for half an hour, they were ready for change,” Lt. Gray said.

In addition to helping HEART clients, Wrigley also plays an important role for first responders.

“I can personally attest to it,” said Lt. Gray, who has 16 years of experience in emergency medicine, including 13 years as a firefighter. “I have my own struggles with PTSD, anxiety and depression. Wrigley senses whenever you’re struggling. She’ll put her in head your lap, visit with you, reduce your anxiety and just help you process your day.”

Before joining AFR in December 2020, Wrigley worked with professional trainers from Assistance Dogs of the West in Santa Fe for two years. She then spent several months bonding and training with Lt. Gray before starting to see clients.

When she’s not working, Wrigley enjoys the same activities that many pets like — playing fetch, running in the hills, barking at squirrels and chasing lizards.

But when she’s on the job with Lt. Gray, Wrigley is helping people through some of their most difficult days.

“We find that folks are ambivalent towards change,” Lt. Gray said. “They’re resistant towards finding new ways to cope with whatever issues they might have, whether that’s an addiction, a complex medical condition or just the struggles with daily life. Showing up with Wrigley breaks down the resistance. They’re able to look at things in a different way, problem solve, and see that there’s some hope and happiness that they can have in life.”

A Division of Health Care Service Corporation, a Mutual Legal Reserve Company, an Independent Licensee of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association