Merrill fire department recruits first chaplain in 130-year history to bolster mental health effortsSubmitted: 08/21/2019
Story By Stephen Goin

Merrill fire department recruits first chaplain in 130-year history to bolster mental health efforts
MERRILL - The newest member of a fire department in Lincoln County trained for years to help the community but his experience doesn't include fighting fires.

Instead, David Szeto's years as a pastor qualified him for the newly created role of chaplain with the Merrill Fire Department.

"To have that privilege and the blessing to do that is just nerve wracking but on the other hand I'm very honored that they selected me to be the very first one," said Szeto.

In June, Szeto was chosen by Merrill's firefighters to serve as the departments first ever chaplain in 130 years.

"Spiritual care, emotional care, the wellbeing of the person as a whole is very important," said Szeto.

Since joining the department on a volunteer basis, Szeto visits the fire station at least once a week to meet the people he said he's been called to advise spiritually.

"That's why Pastor Szeto [is] coming into the fire station on a routine basis interacting with the guys; he's building that trust," said Fire Chief Josh Klug.

Szeto currently serves as the pastor of St. John Lutheran Church in Merrill but his volunteer work with the fire deparment will focus on emotional counseling rather than religion.

"If you don't want any prayers or spiritual aspect at that time, I'm still there," said Szeto. "I'll hold your hand, I will just comfort you, because that's all some people need."

Szeto's hiring is a part of the fire department's mission to champion mental health.

"It's really about creating a web of protection for our members," said Klug.

That web also includes the department's employee assistance programs which connects firefighters with counselors from Aspirus in Wausau following traumatic events.

"Whatever the member needs to have the mental wellbeing to do their job well that's what we're trying to provide for them," said Klug.

Szeto will also be called to provide counseling in disaster situations to help impacted community members. He may even complete some firefighter training to understand what those first responders go through on a daily basis.

"He is a resource not only for our members, but also potentially out in the community too," said Klug.

People in Lincoln County will get the opportunity to meet more members of the fire department at Merrill's Community Night Out on August 27th. 

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