“It’s okay to not be okay.” that’s the message sent to emergency workers who attended the first ever wellness conference monday in montpelier. Police, fire, dispatchers, and corrections officers all under one roof to learn how trauma experienced on the job can have a lasting impact.
“We do a lot of training before anybody even starts on a shift,” said trevor whipple, law enforcement consultant with the vermont league of cities and towns. “What we can’t really train for is what that’s going to do to you from an emotional and stress standpoint.We can talk about it, but you really don’t know until you’re there.”
It’s something lieutenant keith baker of the williston fire department knows all too well. He was one of the first on scene when five teenagers were killed in a wrong way crash on I-89 in 2016.
“They were doing everything the way they were supposed to,” lt. Baker said. “To have something that tragic occur, that I had a hard time with for a long time, quite honestly.”
Baker says often if a first-responder expresses the need for clinical help, there would be question if that person is mentally fit to do the job. It’s a stigma agencies are hoping to turn around as the number of police officers and firefighters taking their own lives continues to rise.
“We’re afraid to seek help because you know we’re supposed to be big and tough, this is our job,” lt. Baker said. “At the end of the day, we’re all still human and I think that’s finally being recognized that we don’t just leave what we see at the scene.”
State leaders say making sure resources and support are in place for them is a priority, especially at smaller departments in more rural areas of the state.
“We want you to seek help,” Whipple said. “We want you to talk to someone who can help you process this trauma so you can stay healthy.”
Nationwide in 2017, more first responders died by suicide than in the line of duty.