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Safe Roads Now: How first-responders deal with trauma

Posted at 8:25 AM, Sep 20, 2018
and last updated 2018-09-20 16:47:53-04

When there is an accident on the road first-responders are the ones providing care for crash victims. But when they finish caring for others, they often need care themselves.

For first-responders around the state they say caring for others emotionally and physically is their primary job. But they say their well-being is put on hold while they are working. However, when things become too much to handle they have peers and professionals they can turn to.

On the side of the road, in the emergency room prepped to act. first-responders around the state are ready to care for those involved in crashes.

"We know when those patients arrive that it is the worst day of their life and so they are literally relying on us to be at our absolute best,” said Dr. Lisa Schlitzkus, trauma medical director at Nebraska Medicine.

Sergeant Brian Stolley has been with the La Vista Police Department for 12 years. He says responding to accidents is daily but detaching emotionally is almost impossible.

"No matter how desensitized it is to you, you take a little bit of each crash with you,” Sgt. Stolley said.

A crash that happened almost eight years ago still pops in his mind. On November 5, 2010, Amber Wilkins was broadsided in her car when a fully loaded dump truck ran a red light.

"It was one of those where she was seriously injured, was unconscious for weeks,” Sgt. Stolley said. "You're really serving that person's family in a time that they don't understand what's going on so you're trying to give them answers to something they can't explain."

La Vista police officer Nick Jeanette says often the emotions appear without warning.

"It's nothing that you're ever really prepared to handle, you just kinda work your way through it,” Ofc. Jeanette said.

Like officers, firefighters live with the memories of crashes according to Papillion Fire Chief, Bill Bowes.

"It's after the incident is done, we're putting things back together, getting cleaned up that those emotions tend to come back and really hit us,” Chief Bowes said.

Just like for fire and police, Dr. Schlitzkus says care starts early on.

"It starts even from the moment from the person picking up the phone and calling 911 and reporting it,” Dr. Schlitzkus said.

While the years of training prepared her to help someone medically, she says she never prepared for the emotional toll helping would take. No matter how many time she has to deliver bad news.

"Never giving the information that your loved one is deceased is easy, ever,” she said.

first-responders agree the best path to continued career success is having someone in their field they can talk to who understands what they are going through. To find those people to talk to, a counseling service for them is available through the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.

Feeling excess stress?

  • Exercise and/or learn yoga, meditation, or other relaxation practices.
  • Don't watch the clock.
  • Avoid setting impossible goals.
  • Avoid taking your work home.
  • Don't turn to alcohol or cigarettes; the effects of these are temporary and ultimately result in increased tension.
  • Get away from distractions. Find a place you can spend a few minutes alone each day.
  • Try a new hobby or engage in a new activity you enjoy.
  • If you live alone, consider getting a pet. 
  • Disrupt your routine. Try a new route to work, a new type of food, check out a new art exhibit, etc.

MORE: 20 steps you can take to cope with stress

The service is for any first responder feeling stressed emotionally or physically.

"The state back in the mid to late 1980s had established what's called a Critical Incident Stress Management Program, there are mental health counselors and peers that were trained in how do we diffuse, how to we debrief somebody involved in these types of situations,” Chief Bowes said.


  • Behavioral: Significant changes in behavior, including activity levels, absenteeism, inability to rest or relax, difficulty communicating or listening, outbursts of anger, etc.
  • Physical changes: Headaches, weight loss or gain, gastrointestinal problems, chronic fatigue, tremors, being easily started, etc.
  • Psychological/emotional: Feeling heroic or euphoric, or experiencing denial, anxiety, depression, guilt, apathy, grief, etc.
  • Thinking: Memory problems, disorientation, inability to concentrate, etc.
  • Social: Feelings of isolation, difficulty accepting help or support, blameshifting, etc.

MORE: Common stress reactions

This method provides crisis support through peers to try and reduce the potentially harmful effects of dealing with stressful events.

"All it involves is just talking through the situation, it's amazing how much stress can be relieved by talking about it and that's the main goal of the CISM program,” Chief Bowes said.


  • Listen carefully.
  • Spend time with the traumatized person.
  • Offer your assistance and a listening ear if they have not asked for help.
  • Reassure them that they are safe.
  • Help them with everyday tasks like cleaning, cooking, caring for the family, minding children.
  • Give them some private time.
  • Don't take their anger or other feelings personally.
  • Don't tell them that they are "lucky it wasn't worse."

MORE: What to do if you notice a responder's stress

He says as soon as a first responder experiences a stressful situation they can talk through those emotions with someone in the program within 24 hours to help them move on with their daily lives.

“We all have seen similar things, so we understand that relationship, we understand the thought process that goes through that,” Chief Bowes said. "We create essentially our own little network of help."

Because as experts in care themselves, they make sure to take care of their own.


If you would like to have a debriefing or intervention for a first-responder through CISM for a friend or family member, please call 402-479-4921.