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How Southern Indiana agencies safeguard first responders' mental health

The Evening News and The Tribune - 9/9/2017

Sept. 09--SOUTHERN INDIANA -- First responders across the nation are responding to more overdoses than ever, and those in Clark and Floyd counties are no different.

Police officers, firefighters and EMTs respond to the scenes unwaveringly, administer Narcan and more often than not save a life.

Even when the overdose drug Narcan works exactly as designed, the scene isn't exactly a happy one.

Addiction still has its clutch on somebody's loved one and families can be left devastated even if if the addict walks away.

As the local population swells -- more than 8,000 new residents have moved to Clark and Floyd since 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau -- the opioid crisis continues to worsen, leaving first responders coping with battling on the frontlines of a vicious war.

"I think when our guys respond to a scene, everyone is different of course, but you have family members that have been devastated, you have children that have been affected, you have have grandparents," Jeffersonville Fire Chief Eric Hedrick said. "Someone has made a very poor decision, they are living in a situation of addiction. We have decent luck if we can respond in time to revive the victim but that's not always the case. When you deal with that, over and over it can wear on our guys. Absolutely."


At the Jeffersonville Fire Department, time not spent putting out fires, responding to other emergencies and training is sometimes filled with what Hedrick described as "soft skills."

Something as simple as lining up orange traffic cones, mimicking fire, and letting visiting Boy and Girl Scouts shoot them down with water hoses can make a difference.

It "humbles us," Jeffersonville Fire Department Sergeant Justin Ames said, and is "good for the soul" according to Joe Hurt, another sergeant at the department.

"If we saturate our days with positive all the negative gets swallowed into the positive light. It works very well and it's very contagious," Ames said.

Handing out glossy, red fire helmets to any kid who wants one and planning training that involves spraying water around which neighborhood has children and doesn't have a public pool makes for a happier department and community, according to Ames.


Captain Matt Owen, B shift commander for New Chapel EMS & Fire, which provides emergency services to parts of both Floyd and Clark counties, said without hesitation that even with hard days, the job is still worth it.

"We have bad days where we don't get a patient back, but we have a lot of days where we do what we're trained to do and it is a happy ending, so it's not all bad," Owen said. "The bad days with this opioid epidemic have increased but we have the training and the resources that we're able to make a difference at least part of the time."

Part of the training required to be an EMT includes learning how to cope with stressful and traumatic situations, but according to Owen the increase in overdoses is making it harder on EMTs even with prior training.

"I do think the uptick of the overdose situation has had... somewhat of an effect where those stressors are magnified, just as those number of those calls are multiplied," Owen said.

In addition to the training the EMTs come to the job with, monthly in-services at area hospitals and in-house offerings are some of the ways those at New Chapel are kept well according to Owen.

"We have a lot of pastors that have said they would come and volunteer if our guys or girls ever needed anything and that's really, really appreciated that not only are we seeing the change and the uptick of drug overdoses but our folks in our community are realizing there's an uptick," Owen said. "And not only do we need to be providing services to help those who are struggling with addiction but we also have a segment of the community that realizes we our guys on the ambulance need some attention also in dealing with these things."


When, or if, something resonates with a first responder and those incidents start to build up in their mind, it is referred to as cumulative post traumatic stress disorder.

Most mental health professionals use compare your brain to a shelf and minor traumatic events are books to explain it, but Conrad Moorer has a different take.

Moorer retired as pulpit minister of Northside Church of Christ in Jeffersonville December, has served as chaplain for the Jeffersonville Police Department since 1989 and is the now community liaison and public outreach officer for the department.

"All of us are designed to handle a certain amount of stress," said Moorer, who also has a master's degree in clinical counseling. "Let's say I have a coffee cup and that coffee cup can hold 10 ounces of coffee. You and I as adults know that we can put any amount of coffee up to 10 ounces in that but we also know that we are going to be much more comfortable drinking that coffee with 5 ounces in that because we can move our arms around, we can talk and it's not going to spill.

"If I walk around all day long with my cup at 9 ounces or even 10 ounces then I have to pay a lot of attention to that cup because that cup is going to spill. Then what happens is if I walk over to you and I start pouring into your cup and I keep pouring we get to 10 ounces a drop, all that hot coffee spills in your lap and you go ballistic and you lose it. That's the same way as cumulative stress works."

In his new role, Moorer will work chiefly with Jeffersonville police, though he is available to all first responders in the area, and will safeguard officers' mental well-being in addition to working with the community.

"What I don't want to see is when these guys and girls retire is they've still got things they just didn't want to talk about," Moorer said.

The most easiest way to fight cumulative PTSD is education, Moorer said. Educating first responders on ways to pour some of the coffee out of their cups -- by taking a walk, talking with a peer or exercising -- can make all the difference.


(c)2017 The Evening News and The Tribune (Jeffersonville, Ind.)

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