Mental health dogs on site in Surfside to help first responders deal with extreme emotional toll

The emotional toll on first responders in Surfside is extremely heavy and difficult to bear, and Miami-Dade Fire Rescue is turning to man’s best friend for help.

SURFSIDE, Fla. – Hundreds of first responders are working around the clock at the Surfside building collapse site, searching for more than 100 people who are still unaccounted for.

The emotional toll is extremely heavy and difficult to bear, and Miami-Dade Fire Rescue is turning to man’s best friend for help.

While you may be more familiar with seeing urban search and rescue dogs, MDFR has another team of K9s on a life-saving mission.

“These dogs are mental health dogs,” said Captain Shawn Campana, a 24-year veteran with Miami-Dade Fire Rescue.

Miami-Dade Fire Rescue mental health dogs. (Miami-Dade Fire Rescue)

Two of those Crisis Response Therapy Dogs are Charlie and Abby. Their job is to care for the mental health of first responders on the frontlines, part of a program started just five years ago by Capt. Campana.

“It’s even a new concept in the fire service to have dogs like this,” he said.

Surfside marks the first incident in the department’s history that their peer support K9 team is part of the command structure.

“I think there has been a shift in the culture for fire departments now, with a realization that we do get effected by things like this,” Campana said.

There have been 31 suicides in the department’s history to include retired and active duty. Campana was friends with six of them.

“When you have that personal experience, it’s very easy to be dedicated, knowing that it is going to make a difference,” he said.

Miami-Dade Fire Rescue mental health dogs. (Miami-Dade Fire Rescue)

Crisis response K9s are currently stationed in the medical examiner’s tent, on-site in Surfside.

“And by the piles for the guys coming on and off the piles,” added Campana, there to offer a greeting and help take the edge off.

“When a human does what we call friendly petting, which means we get our fingertips into their skin, our bodies release oxytocin,” said Campana. “This is an extended incident and makes everything more intense, everything that everybody is going to feel more intense.

“We are now very well aware that we can potentially be effective by stress like PTSD, like suicide ideation, and that is what this team was designed to prevent.”

Campana started the program with Charlie, a retired greyhound race dog who was injured in competition, just five years ago.

There are now ten peer support mental health K9 teams and they are not just pioneering for the department, but across the state of Florida.

Miami-Dade Fire Rescue mental health dog. (Miami-Dade Fire Rescue)

This MDFR team is now assisting other departments in the state get their programs up and running.

The department’s peer support team is also more than the K9s.

“We have counselors,” Campana said. “We network with psychiatrists.”


About the Author:

Christina returned to Local 10 in 2019 as a reporter after covering Hurricane Dorian for the station. She is an Edward R. Murrow Award-winning journalist and previously earned an Emmy Award while at WPLG for her investigative consumer protection segment "Call Christina."