Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be a police officer arriving at a scene of domestic violence? A paramedic trying to save a heart attack victim while the family looks on? A state trooper at a fatal car accident? A sheriff’s deputy at a suicide? A dispatcher talking to a child on mommy’s phone during an emergency?
Then imagine those situations happening not just once, but as a daily occurrence. Being a first responder, whether it’s law enforcement, firefighting, emergency medical services or hospital personnel, can take a psychological toll that may affect people’s well-being, ability to continue in their careers and, in some instances, ability to continue living.
“Law enforcement is susceptible to cumulative (post-traumatic stress disorder),” said Lt. Ed Aber with the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office and president of the board of directors of Interface: Critical Incident Stress Management Team for the county. “Things compile over the years, and it starts affecting you, and you don’t realize it.”
Aber became involved in Interface because of his personal experience.
“I had reached a point where I was not getting over a death scene and was just not coping well,” he said. “I was considering getting out of a career of 25 years. I don’t even remember the death scene, just how it affected me.”
Interface works with first responders at 17 agencies from around the county.
“A critical incident can be several things – an officer-involved shooting, a fatality, the loss of a department member, a homicide,” Aber said. “Something that shocks the normal moral conscience and disrupts someone’s life. And in the middle of it, you still have the barking dog call, the traffic stop.”
It can be hard for civilians to begin to understand what they face, Aber said.
“You see so much bad stuff, gruesome scenes, putrefying bodies,” he said. “I remember when the same crew responded to two gruesome suicides in a 16-hour period. You can’t go home and vent to your wives, because you don’t want them to suffer the trauma, but your family suffers the effects of your carrying it around anyway.”
Psychological, physiological fallout
Capt. Adrian Driscoll of the Colorado State Patrol spent several years early in his career reconstructing accidents, which meant going to scenes of fatal crashes.
“My last fatal was a little baby girl, whose parents had strapped her into her car seat but hadn’t strapped the car seat into the car,” he said. “She was five days younger than my son, who had just been born. I was kind of glad I was getting out of reconstruction.”
Driscoll dealt with the stresses by having lots of hobbies, such as woodworking.
“I took solace in my family and friends and hung out with the people I worked with who understood,” he said. “Now, I try to rotate people in and out of those kinds of situations so the stress doesn’t accumulate.”
His agency has lost two troopers in the past six months. The most recent was Trooper Jaimie L. Jursevics, who was killed by an alleged drunken driver passing by an accident scene she was investigating Sunday night near Castle Rock.
“People were giving me money tonight for her family,” Driscoll said about the Hundred Club banquet that took place in Durango on Thursday night. “I got really choked up that so many people cared.”
Often, first responders don’t take into account the physiological impact of a critical incident.
“It’s a huge adrenaline dump,” said Linda Lute, the clinical lead for Interface. “It can take up to 48 hours to return to homeostasis. And if the stress continues, the adrenaline continues to spike until they become exhausted.”
The current national spotlight on law enforcement after 15 months of controversial shootings and the resulting slayings of officers isn’t helping.
“That’s an added stressor,” Lute said. “There is no hard data on that yet, but anecdotally, it’s absolutely making a difference.”
Making it better
Much like the military, the culture can make it difficult for first responders to admit they’re struggling or ask for help.
“Agencies need to make that OK,” said Kathy Brush, victim resource coordinator on the Interface team and at the Sheriff’s Office, “where they know it’s OK to go talk to a supervisor to say, ‘This is bugging me.’”
The cultures are changing.
“The attitude is slowly shifting,” Lute said. “Peer-to-peer seems to be a little easier to accept, but we’re hoping group debriefing will become more of a norm.”
A group debriefing is one of the key tools in Interface’s toolbox.
“We’ve always been good at tactical debriefing, but not checking with someone to see how they’re dealing emotionally,” Aber said. “It’s been pretty much, ‘Pull yourself up by your bootstraps, get back to work.’ Interface has an enthusiasm about looking out for our own.”