When the brave men and women who raise their hand and take the oath as a police officer, firefighter, EMT, or corrections officer, it is the result of hours of grueling training, many more hours in a classroom, and qualifying with their appropriate tools of the trade. Then, they are given the badge. It is a symbol of authority to execute their job to serve and protect, to uphold the law.
But behind the badge is a human being. Not Robo-Cop, but a real person with emotions, feelings, likes, dislikes, families, and all the warts and blemishes every human possesses. Their stresses, struggles, and personal pain can sometimes color decisions or actions. Like anyone, spousal arguments, financial strain, and issues with family or the job can become overwhelming. Many work additional jobs to make ends meet, adding yet another layer of strain.
Unlike Dirty Harry, they do not shoot a criminal while eating a hot dog and then sip a drink. That is Hollywood. Despite those portrayals, behind every badge is a vulnerable human. Yet, to be effective, they must strive to set aside the circumstances of the day and approach the job in a compassionate, impartial way, all the while, maintaining a professional distance and decorum.
Who first responders are at home and what they experience, however, is what they bring to the job. It is a dynamic tension which defines the role. Their are interpersonal conflicts that spill over to the job and set a bad precedent for the day, directly impacting attitudes, tolerance levels, and reactions.
For some, surrounded by a good support mechanism, that task is manageable. Yet there are some who live like a lone ranger and try to carry their load alone, and it comes too often with a tragic price.
These mortal heroes who possess the trappings of humanity also have a different quality in their skill set – courage – willingness to sacrifice their lives for others. They are willing to put themselves in harms way, to run into that burning building, to work desperately to revive an accident victim, to keep in check the criminal element housed in places regular citizens better pray they never go. This is why I call them Homeland Heroes.
Imagine your most horrifying moment. An intruder in the middle of the night breaks into your home, or perhaps you are trapped upstairs with flames below. Imagine your fear. Our Homeland Heroes brave the flames, rush the criminal, and contain the voilent.
But more so, first responders encounter horrible events – child abduction and abuse, accident victims unrecognizable to the eye, violence related carnage that defies description. and with each encounter, they must, in a sense, deny their humanity and necessarily look at what is before them as evidence, not embracing the horror. It is a defense mechanism.
What they bring to that incident is also going to impact their response. Growing up, I experienced abuse at the hand of a step mother, and lived through years around alcohol abuse and its related dysfunctions. So, for me, child abuse cases or incidents involving drunks evoke a deeply felt memory. While with Norfolk PD, I chose to never work the Youth Bureau for that reason. Getting called to a child abuse case was rough.
The toll of what is experienced – loss of emotional connection, denial of emotional response, and inability to empathize, can be destructive. The upshot is that this desensitization impacts the way they relate to those around them outside the blue or red wall, especially their families. Too often this results in divorce, domestic violence, addictions, rage, or, sadly, suicide. Within the last 30 days of this writing, 5 officers took their lives, one murdering his wife, and 3 of those suicides were in the last 4 days.
When leaving their tour of duty, first responders are not in a frame of mind to chat. They need to decompress, which conflicts too often with family demands.Imagine returning home to the needs of your family. The kids want to play. Their spouse wants to talk, and there are bills that need attention. However, there is the need to go to a part time gig.
Telling their family about the child taped to a wall by his mother, or the accident that took the lives of a car full of cheerleaders struck by a drunk driver, or the rape of a preteen – it would elicit human response, a response they have been trained to ignore so they can do their job. And their family and friends can’t possibly understand how they can speak of these things dispassionately. That is real. With time, all that stuffed emotion can blow the cork. As a result, they seek a secure surrounding with other first responders because they can relate to experiences. The famed blue wall.
Such effect does not impact all first responders. Critical Incident Response Teams work to diffuse issues talking with the responders when appropriate, as do Peer Suport Groups. Talking to a support group of trusted peers or friends can eleviate drastic results, but trust is a major factor, trust given confidentially. Thus, crisis lines and conversations with Chaplains must be protected by law, and generally are.
For first responders, resources are available to talk or get help. Serve & Protect and our partner Safe Call Now are standing by 24/7 to help any way we can confidentially. For family members, the same opportunity exists. Some departments have peer support groups. Serve & Protect works with church and community leaders to help them understand the Homeland Hero.
There are ways to decompress and find balance:
- The best option is to talk it out with someone trusted. Keeping it bottled up will only lead to disaster, health issues, and emotional crisis. If you know a first responder, if you are married to one, help them develop an open relationship with a close friend, a pastor, another first responder.
- Critical incident response teams are a critical part to help unload the emotions that are natural in a tragic incident like a fatality, shooting, or disaster.
- Develop a personal foundation. Begin by acknowledging you can’t do the job in isolation. Find that safe spot where you can open your heart to a trusted person. For me, it was a partner that helped me turn it around by speaking up.
- Talk to your family about the kinds of things you experience and why you need a bit of time when you come home to let go of the day and decompress.
- For me and lots of first responders, faith plays a critical part of finding stability. Prayer, meditation, and reading books on personal growth and understanding faith can do wonders for helping find balance. Find a church that has services when you can attend and a pastor with a listening ear and compassionate heart. Talk to a police or fire Chaplain.
- Believe it or not, interact with non first responders to keep in touch with normal responses to a situation. A trusted friend can be a great sounding board.
- Equally important, it is a sign of strength to sit with a counselor to talk over issues you face. Being willing to open up and discuss fears, struggles, and potential issues can prevent personal collapse. They can help with getting perspective and properly processing emotions. If keeping your car maintained keeps in in good working condition, how much more important is getting a heart and soul tun-up?
Written by Robert Michaels, a veteran of law enforcement having served with the Norfolk Police Department (VA) on patrol and as a detective, and with the 229th Military Police Battalion of the Virginia Army National Guard.Serve & Protect www.serveprotect.org