SETX volunteers help first responders after traumatic events
In the wake of the Aurora, CO theater shooting incident, the nation was riveted to eyewitness accounts of first responders doing their jobs bravely. Reports noted that police officers carried critically-wounded victims to their patrol cars, and in lieu of ambulances, raced those injured people to hospitals on their own.
But once the dust settles after a horrific incident, who takes care of the first responders who take care of us?
In Southeast Texas, a local coalition of volunteers, under the name Critical Incident Stress Management, is one of many similar organizations throughout the country that, when called upon, helps law enforcement officers, firefighters, EMTs and dispatchers to deal with the emotional fallout from stressful, disturbing situations. The volunteers are first responders, mental health professionals and members of the clergy who are committed to helping these professionals deal with the emotional aftershocks of frightening events.
Critical Incident Stress Management, or CISM, is an intervention system developed specifically to help those on the front lines of emergencies deal with the effects of traumatic events. It is a formal, highly structured process for helping those involved in critical incidents to share their experiences, talk about their feelings and learn about typical reactions to stress. The volunteers also offer referrals for further help if the responder needs it. CISM is not psychotherapy, but is rather a confidential, voluntary process that helps people identify and work through the consequences of witnessing things that are disturbing. It could be termed, “psychological first aid for first responders.” Situations ranging from child fatalities or the deaths and injuries of officers or firefighters in the line of duty are just some of the traumatizing events CISM helps people address.
Sally Broussard, chief authority officer for the Spindletop Center, is a mental health professional with more than 30 years experience and is on the CISM team.
“We help first responders in several ways,” said Broussard. “We can do one-on-one work where, perhaps, a police officer can speak to another police officer. We can do what we call ‘defusing,’ where we talk with responders at the end of the shift after a traumatic event or, we can do a ‘debriefing,’ where we do a longer help session one to three days after the event.”
Broussard continued, “We try to get them to a place where they’re able to talk about their feelings. First responders can be very factual, by-the-book people, so one of my favorite questions is, ‘If this incident were a movie and you were the director, what scene would stand out for you? What would be the scene that sticks with you the most?’ From there, they can start talking.”
An important part of the team’s work is helping responders normalize their reactions to very abnormal situations. CISM’s volunteers help inform those who have experienced trauma about the expected physical, emotional, behavioral, cognitive and spiritual reactions to trauma that, although normal, might be a sign that the person should seek help, or at least the ear of a sympathetic person. A person suffering these symptoms might not realize that his reaction is one that others might well experience, and the response is not something that should cause shame.
Beaumont Police Burglary Division Detective and CISM volunteer Tina Lewallen says that the service can help responders in ways that their families and friends might not.
“A lot of times they deal with situations that people don’t feel comfortable sharing with the people close to them because they don’t want to traumatize their spouses or friends. If you’ve been in a situation where you’ve had to pick up body parts or something of that level, some people just don’t feel they can burden their families with that.”
The CISM team members in Southeast Texas must be certified on both the state and national level in order to participate. This training proved useful after one historic date: Sept. 11, 2001.
“We traveled to New York three times to debrief the NYPD on everything they were going through,” said Lewallen.
Broussard added, “We are also available for spouses after a traumatic event. People might not think about how much they worry about their loved ones and how affected they are when something bad happens. Even if the officer or firefighter ends up all right, there are still residual effects for those they love.
“We expect our first responders to be brave, but we should also remember that they’re human beings. When they get through helping us, we’re here to help them.”