New study highlights mental health of first responders following traumatic events

by Amy Aubert/ABC7


“It was one of those, ‘Oh my Gosh’ moments, you know? ‘I could’ve died,’” said Prince George’s County Fire/EMS Department Chief Spokesperson, Mark Brady.

Brady recalls that afternoon in 2009 like it was yesterday.

“We were at a gas leak at a strip mall,” he explained, “in Forestville on Donnell Drive. It was a natural gas leak. We had firefighters going in and out of the building and suddenly a small fire developed from a spark. It ignited the natural gas built up in that building and there was a mass explosion.”

He says one of the cameras on an engine captured the entire thing.

“We had firefighters in harm’s way. They were injured. They all recovered from their physical injuries, but the mental injuries they did not,” Brady said.

According to a Harris Poll survey, which the University of Phoenix commissioned, 80 percent of firefighters questioned say they’ve experienced or been exposed to a traumatic event. For police officers and EMTs who took part in the survey, that number was more than 90 percent.

“You’re going to go to a traffic accident and you’re going to see somebody who is mangled, you’re going to see dead bodies, you’re going to have to make death scene notifications,” said Maj. Jeff Ebersole, with the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office.

Of the first responders surveyed, 33 percent say while serving, they’ve received a formal diagnosis with a mental health disorder.

The Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office has several programs in place that offer help to first responders who need it. Their Critical Incident Stress Management Program encourages those on an active scene to communicate with peers to help through a stressful situation. They also have a psychologist on call to meet with those in need. Their Employee Assistance Program is meant for follow up help. The department also has a Chaplain Program, where chaplains are assigned to each station throughout the county.

“I think it’s taken for granted that it goes with this job and that people are just going to see these things and they got to let it roll off their shoulders. But, it does have an impact. So, it’s best to try to address this on the front side as quickly as we can,” said Loudoun County Sheriff, Mike Chapman.

Now, almost one year since Prince George’s County Firefighter John Ulmschneider was shot and killed after responding to a welfare check, his department is kicking off a Peer Support Program.

“I’m hoping that a lot of people will be able to seek out help and, you know, be able to work through the pain of that situation without it affecting them in their day to day lives,” said Battalion Chief Grady Valencis.

According to the survey, 51 percent of first responders say they’ve participated in pre-exposure mental health training before an incident and 49 percent of first responders who took part in the poll say they were offered “Psychological First Aid” after an incident.

“I think it’s just always been our nature to always help others and not seek help ourselves,” Battalion Chief Valencis said.

They rush in during some of the most dangerous situations and in turn, burning images in their minds that, sometimes, they can’t forget.