VALPARAISO — More than 100 first responders from Northwest Indiana gathered for a pep talk and training at the first Fire Service Leadership Seminar at the Multi-Agency Academic Cooperative Saturday morning.

The pep talk came from keynote speaker Bobby Halton, editor of Fire Engineering magazine and retired chief of the Coppell, Texas, fire department.

Halton encouraged the group to avoid becoming discouraged for living the values that he believes are sometimes considered “regressive, antiquated and ignorant.”

“Men and women like us, we feel woefully out of place in social settings, and are sometimes almost apologetic for our way of life, our values — firefighter values,” Halton said. “We never feel that way among our fellow firefighters, cops and war fighters, where words like duty, God, honor and country need no explanation.”

Halton said while firefighters have a contract with the cities and towns they serve, they have a “covenant” with the people they protect.

“A covenant isn’t about interests; it’s about identity,” Halton said. “A covenant is not about me; it’s about all of us together. It’s about the bonds of belonging and sacred responsibilities.”

In that covenant, Halton said, firefighters’ lives are meaningful and purposeful.

Dan DeGryse is Chicago Fire Department Battalion 1 chief and director of the Rosecrance Florian Program, which provides mental health and substance abuse treatment for first responders. He spoke about mental and emotional wellness.

Because of the situations they witness in their daily jobs, first responders are highly susceptible to irritability, anger, and depression that can manifest as relationship issues, sleep deprivation, substance abuse and sometimes suicidal thoughts, DeGryse said.

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“Some of us have a tendency to use maladaptive coping skills to try to numb that,” DeGryse said.

DeGryse said sleep problems are a common problem among first responders.

“How many people here have some sort of sleep disturbance?” DeGryse asked. Hands across the room shot up in response.

DeGryse said the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) lists 31 different sleep disturbances.

“The only thing that has more is substance abuse disorder,” DeGryse said.

He warned the group to take steps to improve both their physical and mental health.

“If you don’t recover, you’re not going to be that great firefighter,” DeGryse said.

Other speakers included Billy Goldfeder, deputy fire chief of the Loveland-Symmes Fire Department in Ohio; Joe Martin, Griffith Fire Department lieutenant; Ryan Cusak, Crown Point Fire Rescue lieutenant; Tom Fieffer, Portage Fire Department chief; and Stewart McMillan, Task Force Tips CEO.

Founded in 2016, the MAAC is an emergency response training campus for firefighters and first responders.

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