First responders manage stress after crisis incidents

By Stephanie Potter
Pittsburg Morning Sun – July 23, 2018

First responders never know what they are going to come across upon arriving on scene.

How each person deals with the experience is completely different, Crawford County Sheriff Dan Peak said.

“The first challenge is to manage the scene and take care of business,” Peak said. “The next challenge is managing what’s left — that’s us.”

Daily, responders face critical incidents which most members of the community do not usually experience.

When emergency personnel experience these critical incidents together as a group, Peak said, they form strong bond.

“That’s one thing really important,” he said. “We have brothers and sisters we can rely on to get us through an incident.”

Dispatchers also experience crisis, Peak said.

“Our dispatchers are talking people through life saving skills,” he said. “They try to provide information on how to help victim any way they can.”

Even though the dispatcher is speaking to the victim on the phone, the stress they experience is real.

“They are truly life savers as well,” Peak said. “They suffer like we suffer. They deal with the stress as well, from a little different perspective.”

A study commissioned by the Ruderman Family Foundation states first responders — police officers, firefighters and emergency medics — are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty.

“In 2017, there were at least 103 firefighter suicides and 140 police officer suicides,” according to the report on the Ruderman Family Foundation website. “In contrast, 93 firefighters and 129 police officers died in the line of duty.

“Suicide is a result of mental illness, including depression and [post-traumatic stress disorder] which stems from constant exposure to death and destruction.”

WIth more than 30 years in the law enforcement, Peak said he still remembers his first critical incident death.

He managed the “stress” from the incident. However, he said, another person at the same incident may have responded the same way, because people react differently based on emotions and experiences.

Because of the differences in each individual, Peak said, the care first responders receive after an incident varies.

“We hope that we have nurtured a climate here within our agency that if one of our own is hurting, they will reach out to us or their peers to talk,” Peak said. [Or they will] request assistance with getting through that situation.”

Larger crisis often include critical incident stress debriefings. Other debriefings are available as needed for smaller incidents.

“Post incident is another animal altogether,” Peak said. “While comradery and fellowship is an important aspect to recovery and getting ‘back to the norm’ so to speak, there are other things we rely on.”

Administrators look out for their employees to see if additional counseling or debriefing is needed to, “get them well and fit for duty again as soon as possible,” Peak said, adding the post-incident debriefing should take place within 24 to 48 hours of a critical incident.

“We have come to find they are able to manage the stress they had experienced,” Peak said of the debriefing time frame. “As a result, have a lot quicker turn around with them returning to work and prepare the next incident which might come up.”

Debriefings are not always mandated and some responders choose not to attend, Peak said.

“I don’t know if there is a stigma to this that it might make them appear weak,” he said.

Peak said most responders become “hardened” to incidents.

“For some people a really surreal experience, especially younger deputies who may not have experienced it often,” he said. “As years of service start piling up over bit, hardness sets in.

“After a while you start looking back at the past experiences — serious bodily harm or even death — it begins to run through our minds and we begin to prepare ourselves mentally.”

Pea said officials with Crawford County Mental Health provide the department with resources after the debriefing process, when the need for further counselling occurs.

“We have had officers which have utilized that, it’s been a great help,” he said.


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