Driving into Elburn, my wife, Tia, and I were brainstorming a shopping list for our destination place, Ream’s, the Mecca of Meat Markets.
That was when the blinking red and blue lights from emergency vehicles came into view, all parked at the cemetery. Later, we learned the funeral was for a retired first responder. I thought about the Aurora shooting a few weeks before, when a Henry Pratt Co. employee killed five workers and wounded five police officers.
I suddenly wanted to understand what it must take to do what they do, and how they cope with the aftermath of surviving terrifying events. But how? As a high school English teacher, my first responder experiences included nothing graver than taking away a student’s cellphone to save his imagination.
I remembered running into my friend, Dave Barrows, in the library a few months before. A police commander, retired since 2003 from the Kane County Sheriff’s Office, Dave’s duties included leading SWAT teams. As we chatted, a strident alarm shocked the air around us. After he checked his phone, he explained that he was part of a team that helped emergency personnel after critical incidents.
I subsequently asked if he would help me write about first responders. Meeting me in the library, Dave handed me a pamphlet. “Northern Illinois Critical Incident Stress Management Team (NI CISM),” it read, “Helping those who help others” in nine Chicago metropolitan counties.
Dave has been a NI CISM member for nearly 23 years as a police peer and monthly coordinator, handling call intake and organizing response teams, his phone on 24/7 to return requesting agencies’ calls in minutes.
The NI CISM Team uses methods created by the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation. The intervention involves peers to help police officers, firefighters, paramedics and hospital emergency personnel who, in Dave’s words, “have seen the worst that life and death have to offer, do what needs to be done, then come back to work the next shift and do it all over again.”
Not all emergency calls are equal. “Any fatality or severe injury to a child has great impact. Multiple injuries or deaths from a large event, and any injury or death of a first responder can penetrate the well-developed coping mechanisms of first responders.”
First responders are rarely willing to share the effects of their experiences with civilians or mental health professionals, and sometimes even their fellow workers, “because of the potential stigma of being considered weak or not up to the job. They will talk to one of their own under the condition of confidentiality.”
A worst-case scenario, post-traumatic stress disorder, can impact how first responders perform their jobs, as well as cause physical and familial problems. “Critical Incident Stress Management done by experienced and specially trained peers,” Dave relates, “teamed with mental health professionals has been shown to reduce the likelihood of this occurring.”
The NI CISM Team has an informative website: www.ni-cism.org.
As we were wrapping up, Dave said, “First responders were people before they became first responders. Despite the public armor of the uniforms they wear, they are still people – people who are required to complete their mission, regardless of the physical risk and emotional cost.”
To them we owe our security, and sometimes our very flesh and blood.
Rick Holinger lives in Geneva, teaches at Marmion Academy, and facilitates Geneva library’s writing workshop. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org