How First Responders Handle Trauma 

First responders, including paramedics, firefighters, police officers, and emergency medical technicians (EMTs), often encounter highly stressful and traumatic situations as part of their duties. Dealing with trauma is a critical aspect of their profession. First responders undergo extensive training that includes preparation for dealing with traumatic events. This training typically includes simulations, role-playing scenarios, and discussions on stress management techniques. By being prepared for challenging situations, responders are better equipped to handle the stress and trauma they encounter in the field. 

Still, once on the job, there may or may not be easily accessible support systems in place for them. Due to the fast-paced nature of the job, they often don’t have time to stop and process what they’ve been through. Over time, exposure to stressful situations can cause PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Here are some tips we believe first responders can follow to care for themselves and process traumatic situations.
Woman with black lab
Peer Support Programs:
Many emergency services organizations have peer support programs in place. These programs provide an avenue for responders to debrief and discuss their experiences with colleagues who understand the unique challenges of their profession. Peer support can be crucial in reducing isolation, normalizing emotional responses, and offering practical advice on coping mechanisms. If you or a loved one are a first responder, inquire with your organization about access to peer support.  

Mental Health Resources:
Access to professional mental health resources is essential for first responders. This includes access to counselors, psychologists, or therapists who specialize in trauma and stress management. Some organizations have dedicated mental health professionals on staff or provide confidential counseling services through employee assistance programs (EAPs). Consult with your supervisor about access to mental health resources.

Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD):
CISD is a structured process where responders involved in a critical incident come together shortly afterward to discuss their thoughts and feelings about what happened. Facilitated by trained professionals, CISD aims to mitigate the psychological impact of traumatic events, normalize reactions, and promote resilience among team members. 

Prioritizing Self-Care:
Encouraging self-care is vital for first responders. This includes promoting healthy lifestyle habits such as regular exercise, adequate sleep, and balanced nutrition. Engaging in hobbies, mindfulness practices, or relaxation techniques like yoga or meditation can also help reduce stress levels and promote emotional well-being. Find a relaxing activity you enjoy and make time to practice.

Peer-to-Peer Support Networks:
Informal peer-to-peer support networks often develop within first responder teams. Colleagues may check in with each other, offer emotional support, and share coping strategies based on their own experiences. These informal networks can provide a sense of camaraderie and solidarity among team members facing similar challenges. Make sure to share with a coworker you trust.  

Organization Culture and Leadership:
The organizational culture and leadership within emergency services play a significant role in supporting responders' mental health. Leaders who prioritize employee well-being, promote open communication, and encourage seeking help when needed contribute to a supportive work environment where responders feel valued and understood. It also helps diminish the perceived stigma associated with admitting the need for help.

Ongoing Education and Awareness:
Continuing education and awareness initiatives also help reduce the stigma associated with seeking help for mental health issues. By fostering a culture where mental health is openly discussed and prioritized, organizations can encourage early intervention and promote resilience among their workforces. 

In summary, first responders face traumatic situations and often don’t have time for self-care and prioritizing mental health, due to stigmas around mental health and the fast-paced nature of their jobs. The suggestions we’ve shared aim to encourage first responders to mitigate the impact of trauma, promote resilience, and ensure their own well-being. We’re thankful for those who dedicate their careers to helping others in crisis situations.  

In some cases, traumatic situations can end the career of the first responder involved. This happened to Megan Shacklett who is now one of our service dog recipients. Read Megan’s story and learn more about how receiving a free service dog from America’s VetDogs helped restore her independence!