Home News How trauma affects both first responders and those they’re serving

How trauma affects both first responders and those they’re serving



A room of police and first responders falls silent when the video begins playing.

On screen, a young girl with shining blond hair runs away from her abusive father, who grabs her and throws her over his shoulder. Later, the girl is shown flashing back to that moment and screaming when social workers and police show up to arrest her father. She also flashes back and has outbursts when her foster parents try to show affection.

The video, a dramatized version of events many foster children go though, was part of a panel at Spokane’s second annual TEAM conference. TEAM stands for “Together Everyone Achieves More” and focuses on helping police, first responders and social workers better understand how trauma can affect them, as well as the people they serve.

After watching the video, panelists from local fire and police departments, as well as local social service agencies, discussed how first responders can approach situations like domestic violence arrests to avoid traumatizing children and other bystanders in the home.

Spokane police Sgt. Dan Waters said many domestic violence arrests result in “chaos,” especially when a suspect tries to run. But officers can do simple things like making a point to smile at children and looking them in the eye once everything is under control.

“Down the road if we do something small and something trauma-informed … what impact would that have on that young woman?” Waters said.

Assistant Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer said events like that are often traumatizing for responders “where we go in with a mindset that we’re going to fix things but you can’t fix it,” he said.

The department’s mental health steering committee put on the first TEAM conference last year, motivated to share some of the collaborative work between behavioral health professionals and police in Spokane.

Capt. Keith Cummings, who chairs the committee, said Spokane is ahead of the curve on building those types of partnerships through collaboration on topics like crisis intervention training. Interest was so high after last year’s conference that he had no trouble filling 200 spots this year.

“I didn’t even advertise this year and we filled up,” he said.

Much of the conference also discussed how police and first responders may become traumatized through repeated work with people in crisis, even if they themselves aren’t shot at or in life-threatening danger. Dr. Alan Basham, a counselor educator at Eastern Washington University, spoke at length about how trauma affected him after he served as a combat medic in the in Vietnam.

“For some people, trauma is an event, a huge horrendous thing. For others, it’s a series,” Basham said. After seeing other 22-year-olds die in combat, Basham said he came home expecting to be in constant danger. For years, he had to sleep with a knife under his pillow to feel safe.

“If I had a broken leg, nobody would criticize me for saying, ‘Ow, I’ve got a broken leg,'” he said. “Lack of understanding of what happens to us causes us to think that post-traumatic stress is some kind of weakness or failure.”

Ric Jorge, a longtime firefighter in Palm Beach County, spoke about his own experiences with post-traumatic stress disorder. He said first responders often feel they’re constantly in danger on the job, which can take a long-term toll.

“How do you shut that off when you go home? We don’t teach you that,” he said. Through techniques like mindfulness and positive self-talk, he said he’s been able to recover and have better awareness on the job.

Cummings said he plans to move the conference to a larger venue next year so more people can attend.


(c)2016 The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Wash.) at www.spokesman.com

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