A traffic crash where you witness the driver take his last breath, a missing child found unresponsive in a pool; doing CPR for an hour in a field and then in the ambulance all the way to the hospital; hearing Mom screaming in agony outside the Emergency Room as she learns that her child is dead. All critical incidents that first responders face on a daily basis.

The scenarios go on and on. Whether you are involved in a fire fight, battling with a suspect for your own life, standing for a fellow officer killed in a vehicle crash or murdered on a traffic stop; how you survive with your career and your personal life intact will depend largely on how you deal with the emotions and stress that you are faced with. All these things can take their toll on you and your family, and oft times it goes unrecognized until there are major problems.

Our first responders are the only individuals working in an environment where they go to work on a daily basis not knowing if they are going to find themselves in the position to save someone’s life, take someone’s life or give their own life. That uncertainty alone can be very disconcerting to the individual and the family, especially in today’s environment.

How and where do we get the resiliency to deal with these situations? First responders and those serving in the military are all human beings seeing humanity at is worst and dealing with the most tragic of circumstances. They see things and situations that people just shouldn’t have to see or be involved in, and eventually, they can break down due to the stress of this “lifestyle” especially if they are not given proper resiliency training. Where do they get this vital training and help so they don’t become a casualty of the battlefield?

That’s where Under the Shield (UTS) comes in. Started in 1992 by Susan Lewis Simons, Under the Shield is a non-profit 501(c) (3) organization that trains first responders, their families and their supervisors in preventative and resiliency training, while also providing critical incident peer support and stress coaching.

Although headquartered in Mesa, Arizona, UTS is growing rapidly and has now expanded to include four regional offices across the United States. This growth is due to the increasing needs of first responders and families for training and stress coaching.

Susan considers UTS to be a ministry; though not a faith based organization. She saw a need for first responders to be able to “empty” their psychological garbage cans that become quite full over the years through critical incident peer support, and stress coaching, not only for the first responder but their family members as well.

“As First Responders, we need to be able to empty that psychological garbage can. That stress can be unhealthy for us as it builds up over the years. We need to be able to vent just as much if not more than anyone else, because we see more tragedy in a single day than most people see in their entire life. We are the defenders, and need to be able to function when the proverbial crap hits the fan. We can’t afford to become a casualty from stress and fall apart when someone needs us the most” stated one first responder.

So why don’t individual agencies provide psychological assistance for their employees? The simple answer is, they do. Employee Assistance Programs (EAP’s) are offered throughout the country even in the smallest of agencies. Many officers and first responders, and rightfully so, associate these programs as potential pitfalls for their careers. It is often perceived that any association with “counseling” could jeopardize his or her career, often by being placed on a Brady list or being seen as weak and incapable of handling this job. If an agency does have a psychologist on staff, those services generally benefit and protect the agency more than they do the individual officer.

Slightly more complicated is the requirement of mandated reporting. Licensed professionals are mandatory reporters and therefore some incidents are required to be reported. These reports can and often do endanger an officer’s career. In many circumstances HIPAA may not apply to law enforcement, military or airline pilots due to public safety, which only serves to enhance or validate a very real fear.

With Under the Shield, there is no “Ivory Tower” management staff judging you, asking how you feel and then reporting your responses to agency supervisors and managers. At UTS, no notes, no records and no names are kept therefore stress coaches cannot testify with any accuracy in court. If there are no verifiable names, dates, or records, there is virtually nothing to testify about. All the stress coaches working for Under The Shield have some level of experience with “the lifestyle”. Either by having done it, or by marrying it, giving birth to it or being raised by it.

Another significant issue for our Warriors is suicide. Most often these individuals have no desire to end their lives or their careers; they simply want the pain to stop. Fear prevents many first responders from seeking assistance so, they suffer in silence.

Under the Shield can help here too. The stress coaches at UTS, although completely qualified, chose not to be licensed so that any call for assistance can remain totally anonymous. You don’t even have to give the stress coach your name. There’s no insurance paperwork to fill out, no waiting time. No nothing. Simply reach out and help is available 24/7/365.

So, how does UTS know if they are making progress in helping someone? Susan says, “Easy, they call back and tell us or continue with the stress coaching!” The greatest obstacle that UTS has seen over the years, is that officers are not comfortable discussing with others where help is available without disclosing that they themselves have needed help. The reality though, is that we all need help at times and it is not a sign of weakness. Susan has often said that she does not worry about the ones who reach out for help, but worries instead about the ones who won’t.

Under the Shield also wants First Responders to know that services are not just for them but also for their families; be they the spouses, parents, children, or significant others.   These services are also available for our military personnel and their families as they are also our nation’s First Responders.

Under the Shield can be reached on their website www.undertheshield.com; their Facebook page is at “Under the Shield Foundation” and their toll free 24 hour number for Stress Coaching is 855-889-2348. Tax deductible donations can also be made on the website or through their Facebook page.

Written by Patrick Sharkey & Hindy Bluestone