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The Responder Experience

With the recent 19th anniversary of September 11th and today being Firefighters’ National Memorial Day, I felt that need to write about my responder experiences. I don’t know how many times that I’ve heard “well you signed up for that” and it makes me angry. No one signs on to anything to intentionally have their heart beaten in to a million pieces or their world shattered by trauma. I have been a medical first responder, disaster responder, and emergency management responder. Yes, I did sign up for all of them. What no one ever adequately prepared me for was the potential emotional impacts it could have. If you ever have a chance to read Natalie Harris’s book, Save-My-Life-School: A first responders mental health journey, I would highly recommend it. She is a beautiful writer and her insights have brought me so much inspiration and hope.


I like to believe that we do better now than we did decades ago in preparing people for what they will experience in the responder life. That being said, do I truly believe it? I’m not so sure but I am encouraged by some of the things I am seeing. Earlier this year I spoke to a group of paramedic students about my story. At the end of the class a young woman come up to thank me but also shared that she has anxiety and could relate to a lot of what I talked about. That moment was huge for me on several levels. First off, here was a young person admitting freely that she had anxiety. I was blown away with her openness and the confidence with which she said it. Secondly, she reminded me of myself who went in to the responder field already having mental health issues and yet was committed to going all in to help people. I think of her often and wish her well yet worry for what she will go through in her career. At the same time, I smile and think to myself that if she is this open and honest now about mental health, that will serve her well in to the future.


There is a zone you get in when you are a responder. It’s hard to explain. Your brain is focused and clear and nothing else gets in the way. Your vision is tunneled to the task at hand and very little can distract you. You do your job. You go, go, go. Your mindset is focused on each task as it comes up. And you are focused on helping others, not yourself. It’s a huge responsibility that we all take very seriously. During the event is not often the issue, it’s the aftermath that is. Certain bad calls or difficult moments will ingrain themselves in your memory. You relive them as if they are still happening. They pop up in our mind at the oddest of times when something, perhaps a smell or a sound, triggers you. Suddenly you are back in that moment. Reliving every piece of it. Your body responds in all kinds of different ways. Some of us freeze up. Others go in to full blown panic attacks. Some can luckily let the memory float in and out with no major issues. Every single experience is unique.


For those of us with PTSD or OSI (Occupational Stress Injury) those triggers can often be debilitating. Many try to package them away and forget, but the brain will not let you and so the trauma manifests itself in many different ways – depression, substance abuse, violence, interpersonal relationship difficulties, anxiety, and so much more. I work and am friends with a lot of first responders and have listened to their stories. I have held the hand of a firefighter as he told me of losing a friend to suicide who never got over a call where two children perished. I’ve watched members of my family deal with the painful realities that come with being police officers and firefighters. I truly believe we need to focus much more on building resiliency in responders prior to them entering these roles. Even in my social work schooling, no one ever came to speak to our classes who were honest about what we might hear or see during our careers. No one said I would listen to horrific stories of abuse and violence. That piece of info, and strategies to deal with it, would have come in pretty useful. It’s not about scaring people away, it’s about providing the reality of what they will face in a way that gives them tools and resources for support. And it’s about building a culture that makes it okay to ask for help.


My job in emergency management is often to assist communities to evacuate from events such as fires or floods. One day I was in a First Nation community in the Far North. Smoke had filled the community and at one point the fire itself was 2.5km away and moving towards us at 1km an hour (even with all my experience that one gave me some anxious moments let me tell you!). As we worked to load evacuation flights, I was surrounded by community members waiting for their turn to get on a plane to safety. This is the job and I was in that zone like I always am. A young man, holding a one-month old baby came up to me. He was anxious and desperate to know when he could get his family out to safety. I won’t lie and say that I stopped and talked to him and tried to reassure him. I was still in the zone and connected him with those doing flight manifests to see if his name was on one. But that night, as I was laying in my room, his face came back to me. The look of worry and pleading in his eyes stayed in my mind for hours and the vision of him holding that sweet little baby has never left me. It bothered me for days but now I use that memory as a way to always remember that we do this work not for fame or glory; we do it to help people and save lives. However, had I not had years of working on my resiliency, could it have become an OSI? Again, no one ever told me about this part of this field….I’ve had to figure out a lot as I go.


I have yet to meet a responder who went in to their fields for purely selfish reasons. Each and every one I know or have talked to did it because they wanted to make a difference in people’s lives. It’s a calling, plain and simple. What we need to remember and do better at is making sure we put the supports and tools in place from the start so that these heroes, who run towards tragedy while the rest of us run from it, have the resiliency to stay healthy throughout their time in the field. I know a lot of people are working hard at this and we are seeing new programs like peer support emerge. Its better, but it’s a long way from being what we need to keep these amazing folks mentally safe. I went in to the responder life because when my brother passed away, I felt helpless and I didn’t want anyone else to ever feel like that. Supporting others has formed the basis of my life and ‘helping the helpers’ will always be a huge part of that. We need these brave folks in our society and always will, so let’s ensure we give them the support and tools they need to keep themselves and their families mentally safe and healthy. To all responders, thank you for what you do each and every day! Be safe, be well.

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