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After the call: First responders explain how they deal with experiencing trauma on the job

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind.-- On Feb. 5, 1992, fire engulfed the third floor of the Athletic Club. Battalion chief Doug Abernathy fought that fire.

“My air alarm was going off,” Abernathy recalled. “I got another tank on my back on the Meridian Street entrance and from that entrance I could hear screaming.”

Abernathy lost two fellow firefighters that night: John Loranzano and Woody Gelenius. The trauma of both fighting that fire and losing two friends lived on for years in Abernathy’s mind.

“It put me in a moment of shock,” says Abernathy. “I was indeed in stress. And still today I’m dealing with some issues because of that fire. Post-traumatic stress is a reality in life.”

According to Firefighter Nation,  many firefighters have never been clinically diagnosed.  Some of the signs include anger and irritability, guilt, shame or self blame, substance abuse, feelings of mistrust, betrayal and loneliness.

Many post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) sufferers feel depressed or hopeless, and they may have suicidal thoughts or feelings. They may even have physical aches and pains. Firefighters may experience these symptoms rapidly, or they could take weeks or years to appear.

“This is a very difficult profession,” said licensed mental health counselor Kimble Richardson. “We (firefighters) can’t just decide we’re going to tough it out or say simply, 'I can do this.'”

Richardson says PTSD physically affects the brain.

“We can sometimes tell there are structural differences in what we call the frontal area of the brain and that includes the hippocampus and amygdala,” said Richardson.

There are a number of treatments. Peer support can be helpful and some firefighters may need medication for a period of time. Cognitive behavior therapy is used.

There is also something called EMDR, or eye movement desensitization reprocessing, which helps traumatic memories become unstuck, so to speak.

“Neurologically, you’re reprocessing the event,” said Richardson. “But you’re getting it unstuck from your mind. In other words you’re thinking about the event in a different way.”

Firefighters are part of a brotherhood, and PTSD is a familiar term for them. The Indianapolis Fire Department has a dedicated member on the command staff devoted to peer support. The department has a program which they took from the Veteran’s Administration over 14 years ago that is suited to firefighters.

Designated staff are trained in critical incident stress management. They watch and listen for signs of stress. In fact, IFD's program is so well known and respected, the department offers it to other departments across the state.

“As much as we recognize the importance of fire suppression, we should be training ourselves in behavioral health,” said Abernathy.

Other first responders have PTSD programs as well. A spokesman from the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department told CBS4 all public safety officials have an  employee assistance program.

IMPD also has the office of professional wellness and development.

As for paramedics, they have employee assistance programs as well.  If a worker is involved in a traumatic event, they are reminded to take advantage of that benefit.  It is all confidential as well.

“We’re asked to do a lot,” said Chief Abernathy. “We’re asked to risk a lot and we’re proud to do it because that’s what we’re called to do, but we also understand the most important people on the ground is us.”

For more on PTSD, click here. If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts or feelings, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline can be reached 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255.

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