How do first responders cope with tragedy?

Critical Incident Stress Management teams first responders with others in their field and mental health experts

Prayer vigil, Girard Police Officer Justin Leo

AUSTINTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) – The last couple of weeks have been understandably rough for many of the people who keep the rest of us safe.

So where do police officers, firefighters, and even people working at local emergency rooms turn when they need help coping?

Help when situations are too much to handle

A program called “Critical Incident Stress Management,” or CISM, teams first responders with others in their field and experts from both Mercy Health and the Mahoning County Mental Health and Recovery Board.

The program allows first responders from various backgrounds to sit down and talk with their own peers, rather than having to go to a counselor.

Austintown Firefighter Mike Smith said he finds it helpful to talk with like-minded people.

“It’s better to talk to somebody who knows what you’ve been through,” he said. “Firefighters taking with a firefighter, police talking with police, EMS talking with EMS, because they know. They’ve been through what you’ve been through so they can share things that the general public might be intimidated by or not know how to deal with.”

Video: Help when situations are too much to handle

Working through some of the worst calls

It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been on the job — there are some calls you never get used to.

“Those are probably the worst, is dealing with kids,” said veteran Austintown Firefighter Tom Neff.

He admitted the stress can make an already emotionally challenging profession even more difficult handle.

“You definitely don’t want to take it home to your family and you put them in a situation, so it’s best to talk about it,” Neff said.

He went through the CISM program and was able to talk with his own peers.

Austintown Firefighter Mike Smith, who is also the department’s chaplain, helped put the program together.

“To incorporate EMS, police, firefighters in that group, to be able to talk to each other when things go bad,” he said.

Smith said specific incidents, such as a deadly fire or accident, may be what causes first responders to need to talk with one another. It could also be something much simpler but somehow personal.

“The child might be wearing the same pajamas that your child wears and that just triggers everything and so they just need somebody to spend some time talking with,” Smith said.

Organizers said everyone who was involved in a particular incident usually joins the round-table discussions. Often, the discussions help validate how the responders handled the call.

“We’ll talk about what we’re going through, what we did,” Neff said. “Then there’s always people there that can help us out, telling us that we did the right thing, that there was really nothing else that we could have done.”

Video: Working through some of the worst calls

Dealing with the loss of their own

While firefighters see many things on the job, they never expect to lose a fellow firefighter.

Mike McNally was one of several Austintown firefighters who reported to work one summer day last year and discovered his colleague and friend John Fritz had collapsed and died at the station.

“It was all of a sudden…out of the clear blue and it drastically affected the members here at Austintown fire,” McNally said.

He said that moment is forever burned in his memory but that he still had to function after that shocking event.

“It builds up and accumulates and those are the times that you just have to get the stress out of you,” McNally said.

In the days that followed, the department brought in members of the CISM team.

“CISM allows people to understand that they don’t reside on an island. That the other people feel the same way that they do. They’re experiencing the same thing,” said Ben Melnykovich, with Mercy Health Trauma Services.

The program was used recently following Youngstown Battalion Chief Ron Russo’s death. Emergency department workers took part in a session after the shooting death of Girard Police Officer Justin Leo as well.

“If we don’t have this service, we are going to lose people, simply because they can’t keep doing this kind of stuff,” Melnykovich said.

He said in the past, first responders might have walked away from their careers — or worse. Melnykovich said this program prevents that from happening.


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