Thursday, October 20, 2016

First-responders PTSD is real

Some of the speakers at graduations, events, funerals and victim impact speeches have shared advice that I hear as journalist and apply to my own life.

I reported on Bobby Petrocelli, originally of New York, who lost his wife Ava to a drunk driver who crashed into his Texas home. He told his story to Pennsylvania State Police and Chester County municipal police officers. Ava was trapped, still alive, under the drunk driver’s truck.

“You guys and girls know this greater than anybody, life does not happen and change in one day, life happens and changes in one moment,” Petrocelli said. After he was treated at the hospital for his injuries, Petrocelli learned that Ava died at their house. “I knew at that moment the life I once knew would never be the same again.”

Petrocelli later heard that one of the other paramedics from that night had committed suicide years later because she was so distraught that she could not save Ava.

Image result for bobby Petrocelli
Photo by Vinny Tennis, Daily Local News - Bobby Petrocelli speaks to Pennsylvania State Police and Chester County police officers about the night he lost his wife Ava to a drunk driver. Petrocelli, also injured in the crash, now speaks to first-responders to encourage them to seek help after they respond to a traumatic experience.
“(The paramedic) dedicated her life to saving others. She did everything that she could to restore my family that night and it just didn’t happen. She tried her best. She carried that shame and that guilt around with her,” Petrocelli said. “You will see things; you have seen things that sometimes will work on you.”

Petrocelli now speaks to first-responders to urge them to confide in each other when they need help. He told the officers to find a way to cope. He encouraged the police to talk with someone when overwhelmed by what they have experienced. A person of faith, Petrocelli urged them to talk, pray and even cry with someone about it.

This story came back to me after reading about the suicide of Battalion Chief David Dangerfield, of Florida, on Oct. 15. Prior to his death, he had posted on his Facebook about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“PTSD for firefighters is real. If your loved one is experiencing signs get them help quickly. Twenty-seven years of deaths and babies dying in your hands is a memory that you will never get rid of. It haunted me daily until now,” Dangerfield wrote. “My love to my crew. Be safe.”

When we understand the symptoms and see clues, we can offer help. Firefighters are seen as strong people capable of handling difficult situations under pressure. Sometimes we ourselves forget that we cannot survive by letting the weight of what we have seen and experienced crush us overtime. Asking for help when you need it can be difficult. Especially when we feel like doing so displays weakness.

“I still find it ironic, that because of our ‘cultural brainwashing’ we find it difficult to ask for help on our own internal pain, but we offer help to those around us, including our brothers and sisters,” Jeff Dill, founder of the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance, stated in the news article on Dangerfield.

Having an emotional support system established is important, whether it is among the crew or other friends. When I joined my fire company, one of my friends who formerly served as a firefighter had offered his support and to listen to me if I ever needed to talk about what I experienced. That support grew with the friendship of my brothers and sisters at my local company and with my classmates and instructors at the Delaware County Emergency Services Training Center. Having that support system established applies to first-responders, reporters and all professions as well as life experiences.

Firefighter Andy Starnes urged in his “Bringing Back Brotherhood” blog to ask for help during our difficult experiences.

“As we face hard times in life we must remember to share our pain with others. It is not a sign of weakness, but a sign that we are human,” Starnes wrote in part. “Without others calling for help, the fire service would not need to exist.”

One resource available to firefighters is the Critical Stress Incident Management (CSIM) team. They help firefighters cope with post-incident stress by discussing what happened in a confidential meeting and how they are handling it.


The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24.7 at 1-800-273-8255.

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