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Responding to our First Responders

Barb McKay

An article about the Invisible Wounds conference for First Responders (September 2018)

When you think about mental illnesses like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) who do you associate them with?

Like me, your mind probably goes straight to soldiers who have experienced active combat or people who have been victims of violence or abuse. I’m willing to bet that you don’t automatically think about police officers, firefighters and paramedics. Until last week, I know I didn’t.

First responders are, by and large, taken for granted. There is an expectation, and rightly so, that when an emergency occurs they show up to deal with it. We identify with the uniform and understand at a high level what the job is, but how often do we look beyond the uniform and understand that a person is carrying out that job and they are affected by what they experience on the job?

I attended a conference here in Kincardine on Friday that was aimed at educating first responders about PTSD and connecting them with services and tools to help them cope and recover. Prior to the conference I sat down with a couple of the guest speakers who have decades of experience in their fields and who also have struggled with mental and emotional stress as a direct relation of their jobs. To say our conversation was eye-opening would be an understatement.

The speakers, a police sergeant and a fire captain, talked openly and honestly about the trauma they had experienced over the course of their careers and how, until quite recently, they had not felt comfortable talking to anyone about it. On Friday, they held nothing back. Being vulnerable is not a sign of weakness, they said, it’s a tremendous show of strength. It takes far more courage to seek help than to do nothing.

I think that is true now more than ever when the actions of police officers, in particular, are placed under a microscope. The growth of social media is making it increasingly difficult for police and other emergency responders to do their jobs. During my interview Friday I heard a term I was not familiar with, yet it is common one among first responders – ‘citizen journalists’; people who take photos with their smartphones at crash scenes, fires or crime scenes and send them to the media or post them Facebook and Instagram. Police officers, firefighters and paramedics see themselves featured in graphic photos that are all too often accompanied by incorrect information.

First responders take pride in the jobs they do, a veteran paramedic told me, but increasingly they feel like they are being scrutinized by media and social media and it adds to their stress. I’ve noticed the change too. When I started out as a reporter two decades ago first responders, whether they were police officers, firefighters or paramedics, talked openly to media at scenes. There was mutual trust and respect. Now that photos and comments can be shared with the world instantly and unfiltered, first responders are more wary. It’s frustrating for legitimate media because we have to work harder to build that trust. But I do understand.

It is impossible to understand what emergency responders go through until you walk the walk, and most of us never will. In my job I have attended horrific crash scenes, staked out murder scenes and watched firefighters run into burning homes. I am affected by what I’ve seen. But I’ve never had to tell someone that their child has died or failed to save someone’s life while performing CPR or dealt with a child welfare or elder abuse case. First responders do, every day. They set their own emotions and fears aside in order to help others. We need to start seeing the individuals in the uniforms and instead of finding things to criticize, we need to find better ways to support them.

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