“Even in times of trauma, we try to maintain a sense of normality until we no longer can. That, my friends, is called surviving. Not healing. We never become whole again ... we are survivors. If you are here today... you are a survivor. But those of us who have made it through hell and are still standing? We bare a different name: warriors.” – Lori Goodwin, U.S. Air Force Veteran.
Affecting more than eight million adults annually throughout the U.S., Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is defined by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, as a mental health disorder that some people develop after experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening event, like combat, a natural disaster, a car accident or sexual assault.
Though PTSD is not selective to gender, race, age or career field, some professions have a higher likelihood of being exposed to traumatic events or situations, often increasing chances of developing PTSD and related mental illnesses.
While nearly 10% of Americans experience symptoms of PTSD, the number of U.S. military members battling PTSD ranges from 20-30%, including both non-injured and combat related experiences.
Chief Master Sgt. Brian Rozick, Installation Fire Chief assigned to the Ohio National Guard’s 180th Fighter Wing, and his team of nearly 60 fire and emergency services personnel, are regularly exposed to traumatic events and the associated risks of PTSD.
The 180FW Fire and Emergency Services team is responsible for providing 24-hour emergency response for the Eugene F. Kranz Toledo Express Airport, responding to more than 160 emergencies within their area of responsibility in 2020. The team also provides support to the surrounding communities through mutual aid agreements with local-area fire departments, responding to 48 mutual aid requests in 2020, in addition to a fatal civilian aircraft crash on Sept. 11, 2019.
Due to the nature of their jobs as firefighters and first responders, Rozick and his leadership team are extremely aware of the impacts intense situations can have on their personnel. They are also aware of how difficult it can be to define, recognize, work through, recover and simply talk about traumatic events, symptoms of PTSD and getting help.
The month of June is officially recognized as PTSD Awareness Month and Rozick wanted to share his thoughts and experiences about PTSD recognition, awareness and removing the stigma around seeking help.
In the fire service, we define trauma as any kind of emergency medical response. If there is bodily harm to a patient, we say it is a trauma run, whether that be a gunshot, vehicle accident, fall, etc. But, trauma is also the emotional response to a distressing event, so in that aspect, trauma is also the result of how we, as first responders, react to the events we see.
People tend to think that trauma is limited to significant bodily injuries or death, but the emotional impact of responding to a heart attack victim, whose spouse or children are devastated, can be just as traumatic for a first responder. We see many people on what could be considered their worst day and the emotional trauma in these situations can often be worse than the sight of physical trauma.
We are extremely well trained, as EMTs and paramedics, to treat injuries, bUT we are relatively ill-equipped to help a family cope with a loss or trauma, or other outside factors associated with some situations such as social issues, poverty and abuse.
It is so important for us to remain resilient and to have good coping skills in place at all times, but no matter how prepared, trauma can still affect us.
It can be very hard to see these kinds of traumatic events throughout your career, and it isn’t always a single call that makes an impact; it could be a build-up. Maybe it’s the eighth heart attack you’ve responded to this month, or a situation that reminds you of your family. It’s even harder, sometimes, that you don’t necessarily want to go home after an intense shift and talk about it with your family.
But, we have each other and we talk about these things at work, and I think that’s one of the many things that make first responders such a tight-knit family.
Anytime we come back from responding to a significant trauma, my main concern is my personnel. I’m always concerned about how the event will impact them and how they will cope with what they have seen or participated in. It’s very important that we are able to recognize when a member of our team is not coping well and being direct in talking about it and working through it.
When I was a younger firefighter responding to bad situations, the culture was to do the job, come back, pack your feelings away and not talk about it. That’s how we were trained to deal with it. If we didn’t talk about it, we wouldn’t think about it.
Well…man, were we wrong. Now we know that way of coping with a traumatic event is probably the worst thing we could do.
Today, we educate our responders. We encourage them to talk about events with their wingman or a mental health professional. We take the stigma out of seeking help and let them know that it’s not a question of if you will need to reach out for help, but when.
We have also established protocols to help ensure the mental and emotional well-being of our responders is the top priority.
After any emergency response that involves a fatality, we notify the 180FW’s Director of Psychological Health, Ms. Alina Fuller. Ms. Fuller will meet our team back at the station and spend time discussing the event and what types of emotional responses to expect, how to cope and when to reach out for help.
Though only required for fatality events, we have executed this protocol for other situations that have been very hard for us to witness, such as children with traumatic injuries, abuse victims and even times when our responders have faced an extremely dangerous situation outside of normal duties and responsibilities.
This job has definitely affected me and there are runs I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forget. I’ve had to learn how certain things can trigger really vivid memories of past events, and how to keep myself from falling back into those memories.
I know that for me and the way I was trained as a young firefighter, I have a tendency to avoid dealing with my own reactions to traumatic events, rather than seeking help, until it gets to a point where the stress affects my ability to function on a daily basis. As a result, I now schedule regular appointments to make sure I don’t avoid coping properly. It’s taken me a long time and some hard experiences to have the self-awareness about my own reactions to trauma.
Having a DPH assigned to the wing is instrumental to ensuring the overall mental and emotional wellness of our team members. Having Ms. Fuller on-hand to educate us on what to expect and where to go for help following a traumatic event is a huge, positive aspect to our ability to cope and remain resilient.
We continue to talk with our team members and the DPH about past events, what they may see in future emergency response calls and teaching necessary coping skills. We also know that having an emotional reaction to a severe traumatic event is 100% normal, so we train our personnel to recognize certain behaviors that could indicate someone may not be coping well.
Each one of us has different backgrounds and experiences that can impact our individual emotional reactions to an event, and they can vary from person to person. After extreme events, we look for behaviors that are out of the norm for our team members such as changes in mood, withdrawing from family and friends and increased alcohol use, to name a few.
We all watch out for each other and look for signs of a struggle. We don’t avoid talking about the events. We ask a lot of questions and we reach out to each other in between shifts. If we still find that we’re struggling, we ask for help. This is what needs to happen to be able to move on from trauma and the culture of being a ‘tough guy’ and just dealing with it has to end.
I think that being able to recognize that someone may be struggling is the most important step. If we can recognize changes in behavior that may be concerning, we can talk directly about what may be causing the changes. Once we determine there is some kind of stressor, we can refer them to the help they need.
If you or someone you know may be struggling with symptoms of PTSD following a traumatic event, no matter how long ago or how recent and no matter the type of event, reach out to someone. Talk to a family member or a friend.
Don’t try to fight the battle alone. Don’t just be a survivor. Be a warrior and ask for help.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT PTSD
180FW DPH, Ms. Alina Fuller answers some of the most commonly asked questions about PTSD.
Q. How do I know if someone’s reaction is considered a normal reaction or a reaction that
could be associated with PTSD symptoms?
A. It is important to understand that there are emotional reactions following a traumatic
event and that the diagnosis of PTSD is very different.
We can expect trauma to impact us emotionally, and at times physically, directly
following a traumatic event. What we hope for is that with proper processing and coping,
the impact lessens over a period of time. If symptoms do not diminish over time and one
notices continued agitation, nightmares, being easily startled, increased stress on
relationships or at work or increased risk-taking behaviors, it is a good idea to seek
Q. What are some of the most common symptoms of PTSD that may help others identify
concerning behaviors that may warrant seeking professional help?
A. Along with those mentioned above, we look for things such as flashbacks, night terrors
or other sleep issues, startle response, drug or alcohol abuse, hypervigilance and
isolation, to name a few. If these types of symptoms continue for more than 90 days, it is
time to seek help.
Q. Why is addressing symptoms associated with PTSD important?
A. We should approach and treat trauma the same way we approach and treat physical
injuries. Trauma impacts us psychologically like a gunshot wound would impact us
physically. If you ignore a gunshot wound, it will not heal properly and could ultimately
cause you to lose your life. The same is true with trauma, if ignored, overtime it will
impact your quality of life and, sadly is the cause of many first responders and service
members ending their own lives.
Normalizing that we are human and that we are wired emotionally to respond to
tragedy, loss and discomfort is important. When we fail to realize this, or ignore it, you
are essentially leaving the bullet in the wound and hoping it will somehow work its way out on its own.
Q. Where can one go to see help for themselves or a loved one?
Local Veterans Assistance Programs:
• Toledo VA CBOC: 419-259-2000
• Toledo Vet Center: 419-213-7533
• PTSD Coach
• CBT-i Coach
• Alina Fuller MSW, LISW-S: 419-868-4333.