Hillsborough County – Hillsborough County Firefighters Create New Role to Support First Responder Mental Health

Chief Jose “Pep” Prado uses his experience and leadership to help firefighters in need

Jerky 3 a.m. awakenings, the need to act quickly, and constant mental preparation are commonplace among firefighters. Middle of the night alarms come with the territory. For Fire Rescue Chief Health and Safety Officer Jose “Pep” Prado, those calls now take on a different tone. Rather than jump out of bed and into a fire truck, Prado responds to calls in the middle of the night from his fellow firefighters. Their fight? Mental Health. And the Prado line is still open.

Chief Prado leads a team of firefighters and staff who, like him, are tackling this critical need. Because sometimes a voice on the other end of the line is what someone needs the most.

Fighting fires, responding to emergencies and serving the residents of Hillsborough County have been at the forefront of Prado’s life for over 30 years. During this time, he witnessed the changing landscape of Hillsborough County and Fire Rescue. Population growth exploded, development soared, and the number and intensity of emergency calls intensified. Prado says the severity of what first responders are witnessing is far worse now than at the start of his career.

Nationally and across all industries, rates of depression, anxiety, divorce, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and suicide are rising rapidly. Fire Rescue is not immune. So in 2021 Hillsborough County took action and created a new role for Prado, one that didn’t exist, but was intended for.

Retirement called Prado’s name in 2021, and he intended to spend more time traveling with his family. But fate had other ideas. Just nine months after Prado’s retirement, he got a call to return to work – this time as chief health and safety officer for the Hillsborough County Fire Department.

Prado was also not immune to mental bumps on the road. Over the years his profession has taken a toll, but in 2018 he made his mental health a priority. He packed his bags, left his family and crew behind for a month and enrolled in the IAFF Center of Excellence.

Located in Maryland, the IAFF Center of Excellence is a rehabilitation facility designed specifically for the International Association of Fire Fighters. Prado was the first Hillsborough County firefighter to participate in and graduate from the program.

Prado uses his personal experience daily to improve the lives of first responders. “Helping people is the goal now, and my life has completely changed,” said Prado.

With Prado at the helm and with the full support of Hillsborough County Fire Chief Dennis Jones, county firefighters have more resources than ever before.

Chief Prado led the development of internal support programs such as the Peer Support Program and the Critical Incident Stress Management Team and forged community healthcare partnerships for the treatment of short-term and long-term mental health.

His plans don’t stop there. Prado is committed to putting in place the necessary programs to help first responders get through their situation and out of it.

“We push, push to break the stigma”, said Prado. “Everyone is worth saving, everyone has a reason to live.”

*Firefighters are trained to look for signs of a mental health crisis which may include extreme anger, diminished quality of work, missed or late work, constant stress or excessive emotion.

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