Emergency responders who witness traumatic events on a regular basis are often quietly traumatized themselves — and the stress can build like a pressure cooker.
In the old days, firefighters might try to shrug it off or drown their angst in beer. These days, fire halls are acutely aware that ignoring the natural effects of traumatic incidents can lead to responder burnout and breakdown.
“If you go to a graphic car accident and see disturbing things, you’ll feel an emotional impact,” said Langford Fire Rescue assistant chief Geoff Spriggs, the president of the Archipelago critical incident stress management society, a support organization for emergency responders.
“Having education of what that stress is a healthy thing. It’s about having a healthy recovery. We want to mitigate the effects so it doesn’t become a bigger problem.”
After returning from a crash, fire or suicide event, firefighters are typically debriefed within a day or so to check for signs of an emerging stress reaction. Physical ailments, depression and cognitive impairment are among a long list of the body’s natural responses.
“When the brain and body experience something traumatic, like it or not it has a protective mechanism which can cause problems, but they are normal reactions,” Spriggs said.
Firefighters are educated in early stages of their careers to recognize symptoms of stress and to understand that the body will react in sometimes unpredictable and unpleasant ways.
Senior fire officers encourage firefighters to exercise, to talk with their friends, colleagues and family and to have leisure time. They need to beware of over-consumption of alcohol. If problems persist, Archipelago can bring in trauma counsellors.
“Humans are quite resilient, but sometimes they get in their own way of recovery,” Spriggs said. “Alcohol slows recovery. It extends the time you deal with the problem.”
Spriggs said these days Archipelago is trying to educate families of volunteer firefighters too, so spouses can see signs of stress and the tools to manage problems.
“We want to give families healthy emotional support instead of just blind-siding them,” he said.
Langford fire Chief Bob Beckett said critical incident stress training has been in place many years, but is still a relatively new concept in emergency services.
“We want (critical incident stress management) in place. We don’t wait until someone sees their first traumatic death,” Beckett said. “Not everything we do is pleasant. There are normal responses to abnormal situations, but mechanisms are in place to respond.”
It’s taken time for the culture of the fire hall to change, but it has from the top down, Beckett said — the fire department is a stronger organization for it.
“It shows how emergency services have evolved to recognize the emotional challenges and trauma,” Beckett said. “If someone is struggling after a call, we have an organization and a culture that says it’s OK to reach out for help. This gives people the tools to manage daily stress.”
A number of fire departments, the health authority staff and corrections staff fall under Archipelago, which is hosting an International Critical Incident Stress Foundation conference from Oct. 27 to 30 in Victoria, featuring talks by top researchers in crisis support.
For more information email Spriggs at email@example.com or see www.icisf.org.