Are we doing our best to protect our human assets from the hazards of the job? Whether your motivation is taking care of your people, protecting your investment, presenting your best image as a department to the public, or all of the above, the question is one we need to constantly ask and answer honestly.
As a young trooper working in the small city of Niles and rural areas of Berrien and Cass County Michigan in the early 1990’s, I was frequently exposed to critical/traumatic stress incidents as a normal part of my duties.
One Friday evening in 1993, my partner and I were dispatched to an “unknown accident”, which was pretty frequent at the Niles Post. When we responded to the scene, which was about five miles away from the post, we rolled up on a small red vehicle that had been driven off the right side of road into a ditch and hit a cement culvert. I immediately recognized the vehicle as that of a 19-year-old kid whom I played basketball with on Thursday evenings and had known since he was 13. I will refer to the 19-year-old as “Oliver”.
My partner and I were the first emergency responders on the scene and both doors of the vehicle were locked. I climbed through the sunroof of the vehicle to get to Oliver, who was slumped over and gurgling blood. Emergency Medical Service paramedics arrived immediately after, and we were able to extricate Oliver from the vehicle and begin lifesaving measures. I volunteered to drive the ambulance eight miles to the trauma center in South Bend, IN. while paramedics continued to work on Oliver. As I stood in the E.R. entrance waiting for my partner to pick me up after she cleared the accident scene, I finally came down from my adrenaline rush and began to look around. My uniform was covered with Oliver’s blood, and people were staring at me. My partner finally arrived, I walked outside, and we drove back to the post to write up the accident and end our shift.
As we were outside the post unloading our patrol car, my partner began to let out a few tears and said, “I don’t know how much more of this I can take”. She had policed a fatal snowmobile accident earlier that day. I gave her a hug and told her she’d be alright and good job. We wrapped up the shift in silence and checked out at about 11:45 (45 minutes after the end of our scheduled shift). I decided to go back to the hospital to check on Oliver and was met in the E.R. waiting area by Oliver’s dad, whom I had never met. He told me that Oliver would have been glad to know that I was the one who had driven him to the hospital and that he was not going to make it. I laid in my bed next to my wife and shed many tears for Oliver and his father that night. I went back to work the next day and it was back to business as usual.
Six months later, I was responding with lights and no siren to a burglar alarm complaint when I hit a ten-year-old boy who had run into the street from a driveway. I missed him with the front of my patrol car and hit him with the driver’s side before traveling another 20-30 yards off and back onto the roadway. I exited my vehicle, ran back to the boy to render aid and stayed with him until we loaded him onto an ambulance with two broken legs.
After the incident, my post commander suggested that I make an appointment with our departmental psychologist. Through the debriefing and intervention process administered by the doc, we determined that I was dealing more with residual issues from the previous incident than the one that had just occurred. Making that appointment and following through with the intervention process was the best career decision I ever made and prepared me for numerous stressful events and situations I would face in the coming years. My decision to follow the advice of my commander, who had my best interest at heart, enabled me to have a very productive and fulfilling 25-year career.
I subsequently became a strong advocate for behavioral health services for public safety professionals. Now, as a licensed mental health professional, I am committed to helping today’s public safety leaders care for their most valuable assets the way my commander cared for me nearly 30 years ago. My hope is to provide you with invaluable information, insight, and services from an insider’s perspective that will enable you to promote overall wellness, job fulfillment, and longevity within your organization.