ELLSWORTH — There is no doubt that the public safety profession is stressful. For police, firefighters and emergency medical service (EMS) personnel, it isn’t just the pressure and the long hours, it’s the recognition that it’s only a matter of time until you’re exposed to dramatic, emotional events.
The situation is no different for the volunteer fire departments that are the first to respond to accidents across much of rural Maine. And while there may be reticence to discuss issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder, there is a growing awareness that there are resources available for those who might need them.
“When I first started, the attitude was ‘If it bothers you, why are you in the business?’” said Rick Petrie, executive director at Winslow-based Atlantic Partners EMS. “The whole premise was that we’re somehow different from everyone else. But the truth is that we take care of people at their most vulnerable, under tremendous pressure, and there’s bound to be stress that comes with that.
“But we’ve seen a big push for mental health for public safety providers.”
In addition to EMS training and advocacy, Petrie and Atlantic Partners conduct critical incident stress management debriefings for first response personnel after serious incidents.
“When this was first starting to be developed, the realization was that the public hears about a particular call in the newspaper, and if they try to imagine the worst possible thing they could, it wouldn’t come close to reconstructing what actually happened,” Petrie said. “So the whole concept is that it’s a peer-run event. We gather everyone who was on a particular call and let them talk openly about it.”
In a large municipal department, those first responders work in shifts. There is likely some infrastructure in place to help cope with stress. But for small volunteer departments, members could be interrupted at any time and have to respond to a fatal accident or fire. And afterward, it’s right back to their normal routine. That can make coping with stress even more difficult.
“I think the communication link is a big factor,” Petrie said. “They’re not going back to the station; they’re going back to work. They go hang out with people who had nothing to do with that call, and maybe they feel they can’t talk about it.”
For small volunteer departments, it can be difficult to access resources. Volunteers may also hesitate to open up to their families about symptoms of stress and trauma.
“For volunteers it can be very difficult because they don’t necessarily get the same amount of station support,” said Cameron Linen, a Portland-based therapist. “There can be a tendency to want to shield their primary support system — like a spouse — from what happened. But that leaves the person with no one to talk to.”
Linen, who has more than 20 years of fire and EMS experience in addition to his work as a therapist, specializes in treating police, firefighters and EMS workers.
“There aren’t a lot of licensed clinicians who have a background in this,” Linen said. “That can be a challenge when you’re seeking out counseling specifically for job-related stress.”
With a limited number of specialized therapists, one key element is not only improving access to treatment, but becoming proactive about treating stress before it builds up.
“It’s only recently that we’ve recognized that we need to get ahead of this,” Petrie said. “So that people recognize coping mechanisms and understand the dangers of not treating this.”