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First Responder Trauma

unnamedIn these next two posts, we talk to Elizabeth Barney, who has almost ten years’ experience with first responders and trauma, both as a first responder herself, and as a public health expert on responder resilience.  Read more about her experience below.

Q: Who are first responders?

A: Anyone who is on the front-line for emergencies.  This can include fire-fighters, police officers and ambulance staff.  Other officials respond to emergencies as well, though in a different capacity, like morgue technicians, emergency dispatch and on-scene crisis mental health teams.

Q. Are there any common myths or misconceptions about first responder mental health that you would like to correct?

A. Many stigmas and myths about general mental health apply in the first responder community as well. I think the myth that mental illness is for weak, or weak-minded people is still prevalent among first responders. First responders serve others, and it can be very hard for a responder to solicit the same help they so often provide. Some of that is bravado; it seems that some responders feel the need to show an impermeable façade – even when they aren’t on scene. I think there has been a very positive conversation in the first responder community lately about being proactive and addressing stress and repeated trauma before it becomes consuming. Programs like Psychological First Aid, CISM and Code Green are helping that dialogue.

Q. What types of emergencies/situations are most likely to cause PTSD in first responders?  

A. While the diagnosis for PTSD is actually very complicated, first responders are most certainly susceptible. Responders can often exhibit some of the symptoms, even if they don’t meet a full diagnosis. However, I think PTSD and stress reactions in first responders are really two-fold. The long-standing and repeated trauma that police, fire and emergency medical workers endure certainly is a cause, or compounding factor for PTSD in responders.

There are several types of individual events that can cause profound distress and lasting mental health issues for responders if left unaddressed. A situation in which the responder feels there is nothing they could have done to change outcome – a sense of being powerless, can be very distressing.   Situations where the responder feels a close personal or emotional attachment to the situation can also be exceptionally upsetting – an example might be a scene where there is a small child in a wreck, and the responder has a child the same age.

Q. Tell me a little bit about your work with first responders

A. I started working with first responders in 2006 when I was working at a University based-training center providing disaster and medical training to medical professionals and first responders. In 2008, I joined Texas Task Force 1, a FEMA Urban Search and Rescue Team. I was inspired by my teammates to pursue a medical certification, and in early 2013 I obtained my Paramedic certification. Since then, I have become involved in State level programs to work on serving the dedicated first responder community. I have presented on Responder Resilience at several conferences and for local agencies. I’m currently finishing my PhD, where my research is focused on trauma mortality to reduce preventable public safety deaths.

to be continued…

First Responder Trauma

Sara Staggs, LICSW, MPH

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APA Reference
Staggs, S. (2015). First Responder Trauma. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 27, 2020, from


Last updated: 22 Jul 2015
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