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  • Writer's pictureSara Speed, LMHC

5 Things Every First Responder Should Know




We know without a doubt that a police officer is going to be adept at handling a firearm when he/she steps onto the job for the first time, and we can rest assured that a firefighter is going to be educated in water pressure, scene size-up, and fire containment. An emergency room nurse is going to know CPR and a 911 operator is going to be able to multitask. With all of the time spent in “the academy'' and under mentorship as a “probie,” it is assumed that these folks are going to be trained to the hilt to manage the critical position that they have chosen nobly to inhabit. 


With all of the classroom instruction and on-site preparation, one aspect that gets woefully overlooked in the training of first responders, is what the career will do to them. 


There is not enough focus on how life as a first responder will affect their health, their families, their relationships, and their very personalities. What will happen to their nervous system with repeated sleepless nights and frequent exposure to danger. What will happen to their marriage when the person they share their life with couldn’t possibly understand. What will happen to their psyche when they pull a little girl out of a pool who is the same age as their daughter. 


Countless resources are spent on making sure that first responders know how to protect their physical safety. Until recently, virtually none was spent on safeguarding their emotional safety.


Just as preparation is crucial to do the job as a first responder, readiness for the mental and emotional toll it will take is equally important. 


One of the best gifts we can give to ready first responders for the emotional gauntlet that lies ahead is letting them know that there is an actual neurological process at play in their work, what they are feeling is normal, and that it will take a special awareness and intentionality to stay safe… mentally and emotionally. 


Below are five truths that every first responder should know.


1. Beware the “Hypervigilance Roller Coaster”: 


This is a term coined by Dr. Kevin Gilmartin in his book, “Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement: A Guide for Officers and Their Families.” Dr. Gilmartin offers the unique perspective of both a career cop and a behavioral scientist. 


He explains that there is a biological process at play with first responders on shift and off. When at work these folks are often experiencing a boost in chemicals and neurotransmitters typically associated with excitement and even euphoria. This results in them feeling invigorated, tuned in, and connected to the people around them. 


And because no heightened state of arousal is sustainable over time, when the body seeks a return to homeostasis, typically when the first responder is coming off shift, the body’s arousal chemicals and neurotransmitters plummet leaving the person with the opposite experience which includes lethargy, disconnection, and even depression


This is most often felt when the first responder returns home from shift so they can often mistake the unpleasant state with their surroundings. In other words, without having knowledge of the hypervigilance roller coaster, all they know is that they feel good when they are at work, and frankly feel like crap when they are at home. This can cause them to mistake their marriage or home life for the reason they are unhappy. And incidentally, the amount of time it takes for the body to rebound and return to baseline is typically the same amount of time until their next shift. And up and down on the hypervigilance roller coaster we go.


2. Empathy Burnout: 


No, you are not a sociopath because everyone else was crying during the movie and you weren’t. You are not cruel or evil because you no longer bat an eye at what would make most people cringe. In an effort to keep yourself safe, your brain has done an amazing job at habituating, or getting used to, what you are exposed to on a regular basis. If you were to fully feel the pain of every crying spouse, or the horror of every open wound, surely you would explode. 


Empathy burnout is a reaction to beholding a level of atrocity, and carrying the weight of emotions each and every shift that most people experience perhaps once in a lifetime. In order to cope, the brain shuts down or numbs out its sympathy center so that you can continue to do your job. But as you will often see, what tends to be incredibly helpful at work is actually quite harmful at home. 


As adept at protection as the brain is, it’s not nearly as good at knowing when it’s appropriate to flip the emotional switch. Understandably, this can cause problems with family and friends who interpret your disconnection as negativity, disinterest, or even cruelty. Empathy or compassion burnout are a part of every first responder job and something that any therapist working with them should be able to recognize. Awareness can help to mitigate the effects of this survival strategy, as well as techniques to balance first responder work with socialization and activities outside of the scope of their job.


3. “You know what you signed up for”: 


Ahhh, the classic adage uttered by old crusties since the beginning of the service. Other forms of this gem may be, “suck it up, you knew this was part of the deal” or, “if you can’t handle it, you shouldn’t be here.” This is like telling an exhausted, tearful, overwhelmed new mother “well, you knew what you signed up for, so, you really have no right to complain, to react, to struggle.” 


Having your life threatened or watching other people fight for their own is something that you cannot possibly prepare for. No matter how much research you do, or even how many ride alongs you go on, there is no way to anticipate how the brain and body will react until you are placed in the position. 


Many factors influence how someone may react to traumatic scenarios. These include their history, how their families of origin responded to adversity, other life events that have occurred before the trauma, their coping skills, their support system, even their own biochemistry and brain structure. 


Having an emotional response to trauma is normal, having the expectation that you should have no response is not. The more we are able to normalize common reactions to traumatic events like anxiety, sleep disturbances, guilt, and reexperiencing the event, the more effectively first responders will be able to cope with and overcome the daily stressors of their work.


4. Administrative Trauma vs. call Trauma: 


If people were to guess what leads most first responders to therapy, common guesses would include nearly losing their lives, witnessing the loss of a comrade, or simply the barrage of painful calls they run on a daily basis. Surprisingly, though these certainly do come up in the therapeutic process, it appears to be a different type of “trauma” that actually drives these folks into therapy. 


Many of the responders who seek out help often do so in relation to an offense that occurred much closer to home, within their own department or administration. Things like internal investigations on calls they felt they did their best on, being denied workers comp for injuries sustained on the job, or even being pushed out of their position following “murky” cases or calls or behavior amongst the brotherhood where they thought they were safe. 


Though these may seem like little things compared to what the general public perceives first responder stressors to be, when you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. When one’s entire identity is tied up in their job, when they neglect their families, put their lives on the line, dedicate their entire existence to their career, being let down by the very family they have wholly devoted themselves to can be the biggest trauma of all. 


Though they may be struggling to cope with witnessing trauma on the job, being betrayed or let down by the only people they thought understood them, were on their side, that they thought would protect them, can be the one thing they simply cannot tolerate. 


5. Escapist Behavior: 


Taking all of the aforementioned into consideration, what are these guys and gals to do to maintain their sanity? Some healthy outlets include socializing with people outside of the department, exercising, meditating, and seeking out peer support. 


Unfortunately, other coping strategies may come into play that are not so positive. These are known as “escapist behaviors.” Escapist behaviors can serve two purposes: one is to chase the dragon of the hypervigilance roller coaster where the individual seeks to recreate the “high” of being on the job. These activities may include speeding, gambling, overspending, or even extra marital relationships. 


The other function is to numb out; to distract and deflect from all of the unpleasant stimuli and compound trauma. Here you may see excessive scrolling on the phone, isolating from friends and family, and alcohol or substance use. Though these behaviors can be problematic on their own, it is important to recognize that with this population, they may very well be more a symptom of the problem than the problem itself.


Underneath it all, first responders are human just like the rest of us. But it would be doing them a huge disservice to treat them just like any other client. Because the demands of the job are so unique, so too needs to be the knowledge of the therapist and approach of the treatment. 


Working with a Certified First Responder Counselor Can Help!


If you are a first responder considering therapy or the spouse/partner of a first responder looking for more support, contact us for your complimentary phone consultation at 954.391.5305. We look forward to chatting with you about how we can help you and your family. 


For more information about Sara Speed, LMHC and Certified First Responder’s approach to working with first responders and their spouses/partners, click here


We offer counseling for first responders and their families at our beautiful offices in Fort Lauderdale, Coral Springs, and Plantation, Florida. We also offer online therapy via our secure telehealth platform.


Listen to Sara Speed's Podcast Interview on her work with First Responders:


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