Around the clock distress: First responders must deal with emotions of trauma
Special to The Union
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First responders have seen it all, but there are always a few incidents that stick in their minds even years later.
For Marysville Fire Chief Ron Karlen, it was when a 16-year-old boy died when his vehicle struck a tree.
His body was put into the coroner’s van when his father showed up, wanting to see him. He got the OK from law enforcement, went into the back of the van, pulled his son out of the body bag, held him and cried.
“It wasn’t the initial call, but the emotional response,” Karlen said Wednesday.
Dealing with trauma isn’t new for first responders, but the fallout from that has been on the rise. A report by the Ruderman Family Foundation shows that police and firefighters are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty, and post traumatic stress disorder and depression rates are five times higher than the rates within the civilian population.
The Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance estimates that only 40 percent of firefighter suicides are reported and that the actual number of 2017 suicides would equal more than twice the number of those who died in the line of duty.
Karlen said those in the industry aren’t necessarily surprised by the upward trend; a friend, former Winters Fire Chief Scott Dozier, died by suicide in 2014.
“It’s easy to see why some firefighters do struggle and have depression,” he said. “It’s the continual exposure to trauma. I grew up in the time of ‘suck it up.’”
The devastating and large-scale wildfires up and down the state in recent years have just compounded the traumas firefighters already experience. Just days after the Camp Fire in Butte County in November, firefighters were assigned to a job they’ve never had to do before: body recovery. Karlen said when working at the command post in Chico, he frequently saw firefighters coming in sobbing – many of whom had lost their homes and continued to work. Counselors were on hand.
“It’s that tug-of-war going on with people trying to stay engaged in fighting the fire and who lost everything,” he said.
It wasn’t just the overwhelming devastation of the Camp Fire, though — it’s the cumulative effect of major fires in the last several years on top of family separation while responding. And those who don’t go out on the strike teams are often tasked with working longer and tougher hours while their coworkers are away.
“Some people don’t want to go. It’s because it’s this new animal,” Karlen said. “It’s a ripple effect: what resources will we send?”
Sutter County Fire Chief John Shalowitz has not shied away from addressing his concerns with the wellbeing of his firefighters, especially post-Camp Fire.
“As a fire service as a whole, we have started to address this issue in a more positive and forward manner that has helped bring a lot of problems in the past to light,” Shalowitz said Wednesday. “We have the attitude that we’re 10 feet tall and bulletproof, and we’re not.”
Addressing the needs
Following the Camp Fire, Sutter County Human Resources offered debriefing sessions with the help of the Counseling Team International, which specializes in counseling for first responders. The sessions were for anyone who helped out — firefighters, police, medics, county staff and volunteers. According to the team’s website, these debriefings can lessen the emotional impact on personnel exposed to critical incidents and can accelerate recovery before harmful stress reactions damage work performance, health, work and family relations.
Shalowitz said addressing the mental health needs of his staff has become a high priority, though he’s seen the California Fire Chiefs Association and other unions and associations make strides to address the issue as well.
“The fire service as a whole is really trying to grip onto this,” he said. “It’s being humble enough to accept that we’re not perfect people and we hurt like everybody else.”
After a short-term grant expired, Yuba County Probation and Victim Witness has shifted from outreach to continuing to support fire survivors as needed. Those who are most in need of services tend to keep in contact with the office, Jason Roper, program manager for Yuba County Victim Services, said.
Roper said especially after the October 2017 Cascade Fire in Loma Rica, survivors were anxious and on high alert when the Camp Fire broke out.
“It creates a new trauma for them or exacerbates an existing trauma,” Roper said Friday. “The people that have underlying mental health issues, it definitely exacerbates it, it heightens everything — fear, worry, anxiety, their own mortality in some cases.”
Victim Witness didn’t just work with survivors — during the Camp Fire, staff took comfort dogs up to Butte County and met with deputies, firefighters, health and human services employees, the emergency operations center and students returning to school.
Next month, Yuba County will be hosting a regional disaster behavioral health training, which will focus on behavioral health’s role in an emergency response and recognizing first responder and victim behavioral health needs.
“The focus has been looking individually and not necessarily looking at the bigger picture,” Roper said. “I think we’re (now) at that point … The reality is we’re all Cascade Fire survivors in this community.”
Karlen said that, as a leader, he’s learned to look out for signs when someone’s demeanor changes and there are signs of depression, and said it helps him to help others.
“My people are the most important asset and I have to do everything in my power to make sure they have the best working conditions, the best resources, the best tools,” he said. “I think there’s a lot more education that needs to occur and a lot more resources on hand that I can call at a moment’s notice.”
Rachel Rosenbaum writes for the Marysville Appeal Democrat. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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