PTSD in First Responders

Local News

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a mental and physical health crisis in first responders, taking it’s toll for years. 

Research and actions are just beginning to surface. 

The City of Bakersfield is on the cutting edge of the crucial health movement. 

“We see some of the most terrible and horrific things,” said Chief Lyle Martin, Bakersfield Police Department. 

“We hear people take their last breath.  We hear mothers wake up and find their child not breathing.  We have our firefighters that go into burning buildings and get hurt and we have to listen to that,” said Hillary Luff, Dispatch Supervisor, Emergency Communications Center. 

“We’re suppose to react.  We’re not suppose to panic,” said Chief Anthony Galagaza, Bakersfield Fire Department. 

It’s the nature of their job. 

“They have to respond to incidents where unfortunately a death has occurred.  That’s a pretty normal experience for them and so they start to kind of pull away from the human side of it and they have to as a protective factor,” said Tina Casola, Founder, First Alarm Wellness. 

Call after call.

“We all pick up scoops of gunpowder,” Casola said. 

Continuous exposure to the horrific parts of life.

“That can be that thing that sparks it off,” Casola said. 

Moral bending scenes.

“Lots of us are raised in that belief that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people, but then we start to experience those things where bad things happen to good people,” Casola said.

It takes a toll.  

It impacts our first responders mental and physical health.

“One of the biggest questions I always received when I was a firefighter going through the ranks was have I ever delivered a baby?  The exciting thing is yes, I’ve delivered 12 babies, but that times 3 or 4 and those are the amount of babies that were stillborn, some that were crack babies, some that when they were delivered were put in our arms because they weren’t breathing, pulseless, those are the difficult times,” Galagaza said. 

As recently as ten years ago, PTSD in first responders wasn’t talked about.

“From a Police Chief’s standpoint, what I can tell you is I saw far too many careers that were ended way too early because we did not take care of people and give them the things they needed to cope and deal with these things,” Martin said.

Bakersfield is now at the forefront of the conversation.  

“They’re my firefighters.  I care about each and every one of them and it’s my job to make sure that each and everyone of our firefighters are going to go be physically fit but also mentally fit,” Galagaza said. 

“The reality is if we don’t take care of our people, how can I expect them to go out into the public and take care of you,” Martin said. 

The departments work closely with experts in the field, experts like Tina Casola, a first responder trauma specalist with First Alarm Wellness. 

“PTSD is not just I was afraid.  If we only think of it from that perspective we limit peoples ability or want to go get help.  It stigmatizes it.  I’m weak. Most of us, certainly our first responders, aren’t willing to raise their hand and say, ‘hey I need help because I’m weak,” Casola said. 

Casola works to identify changes in behvior in city police and firefighters in hopes to identify and treat PTSD at its source. 

“PTSD is not what we see on the movies and TV.  It can be.  I can slam my hand on the table and make a loud noise and people will startle, some people will take cover and that’s classically what we see on TV.  Mostly it’s changes in the way we act in the world around us,” Casola said.

Signs of PTSD include: 

Isolation

Emotional numbness

An increase or decrease in sleep 

Avoidance of people, places or things that are reminders of trauma

“Once we’ve experienced trauma we tend to try to avoid those things that trick us into thinking that way,” Casola said.

Other signs include:

Extreme worry, guilt, anger anxiousness or hopelessness 

Problems with alcohol, drugs or food. 

Loss of interest in things that once gave pleasure

Picking up extra shifts at work or an eagerness to work overtime.

“There’s a need to kind of keep our minds busy, that keeps the hamster on the wheel and that keeps us distracted,” Casola said.

Another identifier for Casola, that most overlook, incomplete paperwork.

“When you’re writing descriptions of disaster scenes or accidents and your putting people’s names down, that’s stuff that we don’t want to think about, it’s easy to run around from call to call and kind of be operational but when I have to be intimate with the details that’s risky,” Casola said. 

If you notice any of these sympotms in a first responder…

“The first line of defense is having conversation,” Casola said. 

Friday on 17 News at Sunrise, hear Casola’s advice on how to have that conversation, even when it may be hard.

If you know of a first responder in need of help, here are the resources available. 

Bakersfield Fire Department 
Contact immediate supervisor for information regarding a peer team available daily.    
Contracted clinicians on standby 
Education programs and training 

Bakersfield Police Department 
Contact immediate supervisor for information regarding a peer team available daily.    
Contracted clinicians on standby 
Education programs and training 

Kern County Fire Department
Contact immediate supervisor for information regarding a peer team available daily.    
KCFD CISM Hotline: 661-241-3044 
Contracted clinicians on standby 
Education programs and training 

Kern County Sheriff’s Office
Contact immediate supervisor for information regarding a peer team available daily.    
CISM Peer Support Group
Education programs and training 

Additional resources:

If it is a emergency, call 911. 

Behavioral Health and Mental Services offers a Crisis Hotline and Suicide Prevention Hotline.

Crisis Hotline: 1-800-991-5272

Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255

First responders can also visit: 

www.healingourown.org

www.iaffrecoverycenter.com 

www.firestrong.org

www.firstalarmwellness.com

Self-Assessment Questionaire: 

www.ffbha.org/resources/suicide-questionnaire/

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