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Police, fire departments use different resources to support first responders' mental health

 Incidents like this 2015 fatal accident on Highway 19 are a regular part of work for police and other first responders.
Cindy Roller
Incidents like this 2015 fatal accident on Highway 19 are a regular part of work for police and other first responders.

Regular brushes with death and disaster can have a cumulative toll on the mental wellness of police and firefighters.

Few people ever encounter more trauma, grief, tragedy and terror more than those who hire on as first responders.

They are the police officers, the firefighters, the emergency medical personnel who answer the call to serve the public every day. How do they handle the assortment of emotions that are thrust upon them? How are they able to suit up each day to keep answering that call to duty?

It is generally believed, for example, that few police officers ever fire their service weapons at a criminal suspect during their careers in law enforcement – even with the seeming spate of officer-involved shootings in recent years.

However, Farmersville Police Chief Marsha Phillips, a 20-year law enforcement veteran, said she doesn’t “know anyone I have served with who hasn’t drawn their weapon while on duty.”

Therefore, they must be proficient in the handling of their firearms and must be able to assess the risk immediately when – or if – the situation presents to the officer or others nearby. Even if they do fire their weapon, and do so properly, the trauma can be overpowering.

How do they seek help? What kind of help is provided for them? How effective is it?

Bonham Fire Chief Scott Ridling said his department handles each case individually and that if “our guys have any problems, we have a psychologist they can meet with.”

Ridling said the fire department normally does “after-action reviews to determine how we can do anything differently.”

The Farmersville Police Department, meanwhile, takes a fairly comprehensive approach to assisting officers who are experiencing emotional difficulty. Police Chief Phillips said her department has a chaplain who tends to officers’ mental wellness. Jim Fleming “is one of our citizens on patrol,” said Phillips, “and we call on him when our officers need help.”

Citizens Assisting Farmersville Police is a community organization supporting officers in a variety of ways. The group assists officers who answer emergency calls, helping with traffic enforcement at motor vehicle accident scenes. The volunteers also provide similar assistance at public events that require police presence. The organization is not authorized to make arrests.

Phillips described herself as someone with “plenty of experience” dealing with personal and professional grief and trauma. She said her husband died about four years ago from lung cancer and that she called on Fleming to help her navigate her way through her personal grief.

Phillips, who recently assumed the police chief’s position in Farmersville, has about two decades’ experience in law enforcement, serving for eight years as a Hunt County sheriff’s deputy and two years with the Lamb County Sheriff’s Office in West Texas before joining the Farmersville Police Department 11 years ago.

She said the Farmersville department “does have a policy that helps officers deal with mental health issues. We encourage officers to take time off from the job” if they are feeling undue stress from the pressure of their job.

Phillips also mentioned an app that’s available only to officers, which they can access on demand. She called it Green Light Balance; Phillips described it as a “peer to peer” therapy app that law enforcement personnel can use.

Phillips said Farmersville’s staffing level also contributes to PTSD, as officers often have to cover for their colleagues’ shifts. Farmersville PD currently has eight officers on duty, which is two short of the budgeted number of officers. “A small department such as ours often creates stress when we have to cover extra shifts,” she said.

Another therapy, Phillips said, is the use of a local gymnasium, which she said the department “encourages” officers to use. “Physical exercise often is the best way to help relieve stress,” she said, adding that “it’s good to work the body.”

“We also encourage our officers to reach out to each other, to talk issues through,” Phillips said.

One source of trauma for Farmersville PD officers, Phillips said, is the relatively high number of fatal motor vehicle accidents to which the police department responds. “We seem to have a lot those kinds of accidents,” she said, noting that Texas Highway 78 and U.S. Highway 380 are both high-speed rights-of-way that produce serious, often fatal, traffic accidents. Therefore, she said, the officers on her staff face potentially stressful incidents all too frequently.

Given that Farmersville is experiencing rapid growth, Phillips said she plans to ask the City Council later this summer for additional money to hire more officers for the next budget year that begins in October. The aim, she said, is to try to keep pace with the demand the officers are going to feel as the city continues to grow.

Commerce City Manager Howdy Lisenbee said the city “can’t require our first responders to attend sessions” aimed at dealing with trauma, but it does “offer as many as six sessions free of charge” for responders to use.

“They talk to someone who either is a first responder or is a former first responder and who knows what they’re dealing with,” Lisenbee said.

Commerce Fire Chief Chris Bassham once wore two hats as the city’s emergency services coordinator, while supervising the police and fire departments. The city hired a police chief in February, which means Bassham now runs the fire department exclusively.

“A lot of our guys don’t like to talk about the stress they suffer,” Bassham said, “so I guess I should say we could do a better job” of helping first responders cope with stress, trauma and symptoms associated with PTSD. “We have a lot of room for growth,” he said.

Firefighters and police officers, Bassham said, can access an online call center where they can talk to “someone who’s walked in their shoes; he knows what they’re going through. We also get a local pastor involved.”

Bassham said he doesn’t “track or monitor” those who seek help.

Commerce’s police department has 19 full-time officers and 12 paid firefighters who serve along with 12 volunteer firefighters who also work for other emergency service agencies in the area, Bassham said.

Bassham recalled an incident to which he responded a few years ago that “stuck with me for a long time.” He was a firefighter and said his daughter at the time was a small girl. “We got a call on a trailer fire not far from the station,” Bassham remembered. “We got there quickly – within just a couple of minutes – and put the fire out,” he said, “but then we were told there was a little girl inside.”

He said the firefighters entered the trailer and found the girl, who Bassham said “reminded me of my daughter. She looked like my little girl.” Bassham said the firefighters sought to revive the girl, but she died on the scene. “Smoke inhalation got to her,” Bassham said.

“That really got to me,” Bassham said, “and so we try to help first responders cope with these kinds of events.”