Ga. City FD marks PTSD Awareness Month with discussions about mental health

Alan Mauldin
The Albany Herald

ALBANY, Ga. — Shootings, stabbings, fires, accidents and drug overdoses. These are some of the calls where a first responder may be dispatched on any given day.

Responding to any of these scenes can be stressful not only for police officers, paramedics, and firefighters, but also for those who answer 911 calls and dispatch personnel.

June is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Awareness Month.

June is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Awareness Month.

On Wednesday, the Albany Fire Department and Emergency Medical Services officials spoke on the topic of post-traumatic stress disorder as awareness month for the condition draws to a close and discussed how they are helping employees cope.

About 20 percent of firefighters will be affected by PTSD during their career, said Deputy Fire Chief Ken Turner. Fire Department personnel wore teal ribbons for PTSD Awareness Day Monday.

“When a fire is reported and someone is trapped inside, there’s an adrenaline rush and you want to get there as soon as possible,” Turner said of one of the more stressful situations a firefighter faces. “What I find to be one of the most stressful parts is trying to help people when you get to a car accident and people are watching and you’re often disabled.”

And then there are cases when, despite the help provided, the victim cannot be saved.

“There are people you want to help and you can’t help,” Turner said.

One way the fire department supports employees is by holding a debriefing every time they respond to a traumatic situation.

The Team Employee Assistance Program also provides support services for firefighters and dispatchers who need assistance, said Sheila Sims, the District 911 communications manager.

“The fire service has an internal group of advisors who speak to people after an (incident) if it’s been stressful,” she said.

While dispatchers may not go to a gruesome scene, they still face stress when handling the calls from those who are often going through a traumatic event such as the death or injury of a loved one. You must also assist the caller and gather information to provide those who respond to the scene with a detailed description of what is happening.

“Most of the time, it gets people to seek help, it gets them to ask for help,” she said.

While PTSD isn’t as common in dispatchers as it is in those who respond, it does happen and can be obvious at times, Sims said. According to Sims, if a change in behavior is noticed in an employee, she may secretly recommend seeking help.

COVID-19 also impacted the stress levels of first responders. Although 911 didn’t lose any employees to the virus, almost everyone was affected because they knew someone who was ill or died, and call volume surged during the worst of the pandemic.

Like almost every other city department, the 911 isn’t fully staffed, and dispatchers sometimes work overtime and double shifts, Sims said.

“We need our employees healthy so that they can deliver the services that we need to deliver,” she said. “Communications officers are definitely at risk of PTSD due to the increased number of calls they deal with in the communications center. (It’s also) the nature of the calls, whether it’s an accident with fatalities, shootings, stabbings — any calls where there’s loss of life.”

And Turner added that the effects are often not immediate. It is the repeated exposure to traumatic scenes that can lead to PTSD over time.

“It could be a year or two after it happened,” Sims said. “When you notice a change in someone’s behavior, that’s the right time to start taking care of yourself.”

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(c)2022 The Albany Herald, Ga.

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