First Responders Are Heroes
First responders are heroes! Their life-saving work isn’t always obvious or even noticed by others and they don’t wear capes. Actually, they don’t even recognize that what they do is heroic. For a paramedic/firefighter providing medical aid to a woman injured in a traffic collision or pulling a child out of a burning 2nd story home is a Tuesday. A police officer arresting a drunk driver or providing safety to a mother and child after domestic violence is just another day-in-the-life.
Firefighters and peace officers are action-oriented and run toward danger rather than away from it. They look for solutions and pride themselves on having answers. As public servants in our communities, they are called upon to protect and serve its people.
Here’s the problem; when a person is exposed to the suffering of others day in and day out; abuse, evil, death, and destruction, there are going to be consequences. First responders are human and have reactions to the pain they see in the lives of those they serve.
Pain is contagious, when we see others hurting we hurt too. There is no fix for empathy and compassion. There has not been enough education to prepare first responders mentally and emotionally for chronic exposure to human suffering. Little has been done to protect their mental health and emotional wellness aside from the required PT.
Who is watching out for them? What is being done at the agency or department level to provide a healthy and sustainable career? Where are the training, education, and culture of wellness that will set up an officer, firefighter, paramedic, doctor, or nurse for success in their chosen field of serving others?
Questions like; “What is wrong with me?” are all too common. They don’t know what to do with the intrusive images, overthinking, guilt, anger, and sadness.
As a therapist primarily working with this population, I have discovered that giving the directive to “sit with it” or “be still, it will pass” is met with frustration. Sitting still is the opposite of what they are trained to do on a daily basis.
There is one solution that I have seen provided by some first responder agencies; Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) and more specifically Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD). This cognitive educational process is designed to provide education, support, and awareness following a critical incident. However, it is not yet a standard offering nor is there a standard operating procedure as to when to provide these services and to whom.
For agencies that do provide CISD it is left up to the discretion of management to “call it in” and too often it goes like this; “hey guys, rough call, anyone need to talk to the therapist?”
For some law enforcement agencies providing CISD’s has become standard following a lethal force encounter but very few have specific and standard protocols for who participates and when.
Having been a clinician providing critical incident stress debriefing I can report on the A-ha moments and look of relief as the reasons for their thoughts, feelings, and reactions are highlighted in the aftermath of tragedy. By unpacking the experience, so to speak, the brain gets the opportunity to process and file away the information taken in by trauma. Post-traumatic stress reactions; the symptoms, thoughts, and feelings that occur following a traumatic incident are NORMAL and expected. Caution can be given for monitoring the several days ahead and resources provided should the participant need additional follow-up and support.
By no means is CISM or CISD meant to be a panacea for exposure to trauma. It is important to recognize that nothing can replace the resilient nature of our men and women who are first-responders.
Resiliency, stress management, and mental health education can serve as the foundation of a first responder agency’s wellness program. Critical Incident Stress Management services can provide one of the necessary tools for first responders to live happily ever after in their careers both on and off the job and into retirement.
For more information on Critical Incident Stress Management: