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Emergency personnel aren’t immune to victims’ ordeals

The widespread impression of emergency service personnel is that exposure to pain, suffering and loss of life doesn’t affect them the way it affects the average person.
These highly-trained professionals are believed to be immune or at least desensitized to the misfortune of the casualties they encounter.
However, the reality, emergency workers say, is that dealing with tragedy never gets easier. Often it’s more difficult.
One of those times came for the Elizabeth Volunteer Fire Dept. this fall. Firefighters responded to six highway fatalities in little more than six weeks. The most recent in Elizabeth occurred Oct. 9.
Just after midnight, Donald E. (Eddie) Decker, 23, was fleeing from Officer John Dismang of the Harrison County Sheriff’s Dept., traveling north on the Elizabeth-New Middletown Road. Dismang estimated Decker’s Chevy Nova was traveling about 100 mph when it went airborne and left the road while cresting a hill during the pursuit.
When Dismang located the vehicle, it was in two pieces next to a tree. Decker had been thrown from the car and suffered fatal injuries. He was pronounced dead at the scene. Decker’s passenger, Nicole Christene Phillips, 31, was taken by STATCARE air ambulance to University of Louisville Hospital, where she died a few hours later.
Prior to the chase, Dismang was responding to a disturbance call. He saw Decker’s vehicle on the side of the road and had stopped to see if he needed assistance when Decker sped away.
Several days later, Harrison Township Volunteer Fire Dept. responded to a call about a vehicle spotted near Interstate 64 and Gethsemane Road underpass. The volunteers found Vaughn and Inez Wilson of Mount Vernon, Ind., both 77, and their two small dogs. All had died in a crash during the night. Vaughn Wilson sustained massive chest injuries, and Inez Wilson suffered a broken neck.
Last year, Harrison County recorded about 14 fatalities, according to the sheriff’s department. This year the county had recorded 11 fatalities at press time, including the four people killed in October.
“You have the unsightly scenes. They affect you just like everyone else, but you learn to become professional. The after-effects we are very careful to try and deal with,” said the Rev. Richard Goodwin, Harrison County Police Chaplain and an Elizabeth firefighter.
“We are not superhumans,” said Harrison County Coroner Chad Cesar. “The truth is, while we are there performing our duties, we can’t let it affect our responsibilities to the public because our emphasis, our only emphasis at that time, is on serving the public – serving the families of those killed or dying. It never gets old. It never gets easier.”
After the emergency, when the realization of what took place sets in, Goodwin said, emergency workers commonly have Critical Incident Stress Debriefing sessions (CISDs).
“You talk and let them know they are not the only ones that are feeling these feelings. If they are still feeling them after a few weeks, you let them know that it might be a good idea to see a counselor,” Goodwin said. “Just by talking it over, letting them know that other people are feeling the same emotions, usually they are able to work through it.”
Co-workers, counselors and chaplains like Goodwin watch for classic signs of stress, including irritability, restlessness, sleeplessness and loss of appetite, to determine if a worker may be having difficulty coping.
When Goodwin is needed, his credibility helps him to be effective.
“You have to be credible because folks are not going to talk to you if you aren’t,” Goodwin said. “To become credible, you become a part of their activities. With the fire department, you become a firefighter; with the police department, you go out with them. You see what they see, hear what they hear, feel what they feel.”
Goodwin’s credibility is air-tight. He’s been dealing with post-traumatic stress personally and occupationally since the Vietnam War, when he was a hospital corpsman with the Marine Corps.
“Our day begins when theirs ends,” said Det. Richard Bauman of the Harrison County Sheriff’s Dept., speaking of the relationship between detectives and victims of accidents and crime.
As a police detective, Bauman doesn’t treat victims, but he does work with those who don’t survive.
“We kind of turn off the fact that it is a person at a crime scene. It does bother us, but you have to block these things out,” Bauman said. “We have to get into that person’s background and mind and find out what happened up until the time we were called, and, basically, become that person and backtrack everything.”
Also, for a detective, the work pace makes it easier to cope. Officers move from one case to the next, often not looking back. This forensic approach also helps the detective when dealing with people he knows. If you get rattled, Bauman said, it makes it difficult to do your job.
Sometimes even the detective’s job becomes too difficult.
“Kids. I had a boy drown last summer. For me, I couldn’t do it,” he said.
Like their colleagues in related fields, police officers turn to the chaplain for help. If they have difficulty coping, time off and counseling are also options available to them.