July 4th was a great day for me and my family. My husband and I were off duty, and we spent the day with friends and family, grilling and playing red, white and blue games (I know I’m a little silly sometimes!). We ended the night watching the Macy’s and Washington D.C. fireworks celebrations on TV. Before I went to sleep, I logged in to see how my Facebook friends were doing and how everyone else’s holiday went.
As I scrolled through pages and profiles, a page that I “like” struck me; the owner is a young military veteran that recently got home from his last tour in Iraq. His update read something to the effect of “Fireworks and PTSD aren’t a great combination,” followed by several comments of encouragement and similar stories from vets and spouses of vets. I am embarrassed to say that I had never thought of what those who suffer from PTSD, particularly our returning soldiers, have to contend with when they come home. It made me appreciate even more what these brave people sacrifice for our freedom. Some of them will never be the same.
It is ironic that those soldiers who serve their country and ensure that we remain free every day cannot enjoy something that the rest of us look forward to all year: fireworks, which have, for generations, been a celebration of our freedom and independence. It’s an injustice: A simple pleasure that brings Americans together can bring dread and anxiety to those who have sacrificed for us.
Being on my county’s CISM team, we have, unfortunately, been seeing a lot of PTSD-related issues lately. We recently had an officer stop in the middle of a busy roadway during a rainstorm after seeing a trashcan that had blown into the median. He couldn’t bring himself to drive by it, thinking that it must be an IED. Not long after that, during a police chase, the man leading police shot himself while driving. The officer who was first on scene of the crash had served as a field medic in the service, and instead of securing the weapon and scene, he turned into rescue mode and starting trying to save the suspect.
Loud noises, sights, smells, victims, and many more things can trigger an episode for someone suffering from PTSD.
Some agencies, including one in my area, have started putting together programs that assist veterans returning to the workforce back home. They are becoming more understanding about how vets can fit into their organization and how to best utilize their skills. It has been very successful and beneficial for both parties involved. These agencies are offering services that reach out to our returning service men and women, teach us “civilians” how to recognize the possible difficulties they may face and help us to appreciate the veteran and how they can continue to serve their community. It’s the very least we can do!
PTSD used to carry a certain stigma and be something that was rarely talked about. The only time you heard about it was when someone suffered the most severe of episodes, which impacted the public in some negative way. Maybe you see victims in movies, usually depicted as some crazy loner who loses it and ends up hurting himself or others. No wonder those effected chose to suffer in silence. There are many programs and support groups out there now focused on helping these courageous folks and put them in touch with others that are suffering similar symptoms.
Many sources are finally publishing studies and teaching classes on the effects of public safety work on call takers and dispatchers. Such studies are finding that you do not have to actually witness or be on scene of a traumatic event for it to have a negative effect on those who work on the other side of the radio. We go through much of the same type of anxiety and stress, though our exposure is somewhat removed. We rely on our other senses to do our job. We only have our hearing to rely on, sitting in the communication center, so the less we hear, the more stressful a scene becomes. I have often said that longest moment in a dispatcher’s life is waiting for a scene secure, suspect in custody or a PAR (personnel accountability report) on a fire scene.
Law enforcement, fire safety, dispatchers, medical services, and military personnel alike, we are all cut from the same cloth. We have very similar personalities and the desire to serve others. It’s no wonder that our first inclination is to keep our own problems, worries, and nightmares to ourselves. We don’t want to be a burden to anyone. Please, please, please seek help! There are people who love you like family and want you to be well. You deserve to be mentally healthy. Don’t let stress win. Learn what you need to do in order to beat or manage it. We want you to live a happy and productive life and certainly want you to have a successful career that leads to a happy retirement.
If your agency doesn’t have a local Critical Incident Stress Management Team and you have been through a critical or traumatic work incident, you can contact the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation at www.icisf.org, and they can put you in touch with the closet team that can assist you. These teams are professional mental health and trained public safety peers that know exactly what you do for a living and have been exposed to similar incidents so that you can be assured that those that you are talking to have been exactly where you are at some point in their careers.
If your symptoms persist you may want to consider further professional assistance. Make sure they have experience with public safety personnel and/or PTSD.
Be well and be safe my family.