Tahoe Chief’s Corner: Sometimes, it’s not easy being a helper
Some months ago I wrote a Chief’s Corner column extolling the virtues of the fire service as a profession, citing the rewarding work, great schedule, reasonable wage and benefit package and the appreciation of our work by a grateful public.
I certainly emphasized the positive, because I’m by nature an optimist, but jobs in public safety take a physical and emotional toll from the folks who are called to be “helpers.” Sometimes they can have a significant effect on bystanders as well.
In the past several weeks, our department responded to a trio of tragic situations where someone lost their life in a sudden and violent manner. In each of those situations, our firefighters were called upon to not only perform in a technically proficient, cool, calm and completely professional manner, but to then move on to the next call or return to ordinary life as if nothing had happened.
We used to think that exposure to repeated emotional trauma would somehow “toughen you up” — but we now try to address the normal reactions to stressful, extraordinary situations after each event, because the negative effects of repeated exposure to emotionally traumatic events accumulate over time.
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The fire service and law enforcement agencies in the Truckee-North Tahoe area have a number of members who are trained in Critical Incident Stress Management and a team is available 24/7 to respond to requests from allied agencies (generally public agencies, but we frequently provide service to ski patrollers and resort employees as well).
It’s a great resource and I’m proud to be a part of it and gratified that the emergency services professionals in this area have made such a commitment to looking after the well-being of our employees and colleagues.
When I arrived at the scene on State Route 89 where a large tree had fallen across the roadway, crushing a car and killing Emmanuelle Delavoye, several bystanders told me that they had checked the car and found Ms. Delavoye and more than a few had probably watched the accident occur, because traffic was moving slowly, and they must have realized the horrifying outcome.
I had no time to interview them and check on the state of their mental health at the time, but I wondered later about how they were doing and how the event was affecting them — someone who has rarely or never had such an exposure may be profoundly disturbed and that is concerning.
If you’re in this situation and you find that the event continues to dominate your thoughts and that you keep turning it over in your mind, don’t worry — it’s a very normal reaction to an extraordinary event.
If you haven’t resolved the situation after a week or so, talk to a healthcare professional, minister or someone else you trust to help sort it out. Even professional “helpers” sometimes need help when confronted by emotionally challenging events.
Pete Bansen is chief of the Squaw Valley Fire Department. Visit svpsd.org/svfd/fire to learn more.
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