First Responders Take Care of Us, But Who Takes Care of Them?

first responders

Do you ever wonder, “Who’s taking care of the emergency responders?”

They are first on the scene, and subject to horrors the average person can’t imagine. Rob Harrison is a first responder. He also co-directs a non-profit organization called Whidbey CareNet that supplies free care for emergency responders, which takes care to protect the confidentiality of first responders who risk losing their jobs as they struggle with PTSD type symptoms.

In a statement issued today, the Whidbey CareNet organization explains how vulnerable our first responders are. They write:

The world’s eyes are on Newtown, Connecticut, this week as the families of those killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School lay their loved ones to rest. As painful as their experience has been, there’s one thing they didn’t do: witness the carnage. It was emergency responders who did that. They went from one victim to another, hoping to save lives, but covered little bodies with blankets instead, put them on gurneys, transported them to aid vehicles, and had trouble falling asleep that night. More than 20 percent of them will develop PTSD, and approximately 40 percent of them will self-medicate with drugs or alcohol.

Last year, within a six-week period, the close-knit community of South Whidbey Island lost four young people in car accidents. Mick Poynter (20), Mack Porter (19), and Rob Knight (22) died in the same accident on November 12, and nine-year-old Zippy Leonard died on Christmas Day. The community rallied around the families of the victims. But when Rob Harrison, an EMT who responded to the accident that killed Zippy burst into tears at the South Whidbey Commons, Petra Martin wondered, “Who’s taking care of the emergency responders?”

Martin had created a tool that helps people put their feelings into words, but she didn’t consider herself qualified to provide the care she thought responders needed. So she created a website called and asked a number of caregivers if they were willing to provide free care for emergency responders. Her request went viral, and today, more than 30 providers offer everything from free counseling and massage therapy to free naturopathic and chiropractic care. “I was appalled when I realized that we’d neglected our emergency responders—most of whom are volunteers,” Martin says. “Caregivers felt the same way. They continue to thank me for giving them an opportunity to serve the men and women who care for us on the worst days of our lives.”

Whidbey CareNet serves both professional and volunteer responders. Professionals risk losing their jobs if they admit to seeking treatment for conditions such as PTSD, so confidentiality is critical. The organization encourages emergency responders to contact providers directly and asks providers not to reveal responder identities to Whidbey CareNet.

“Whidbey CareNet providers have helped me get through one of the most difficult years of my life,” says Harrison, who now co-directs the organization. “I have a de-stressing tool kit that I can—and do—use any time. When triggering events like Newtown happen, especially so close to the anniversary of Zippy’s death and my own emotional awakening, I know I have resources. I wish all emergency responders were as fortunate as I am.”

End statement.

Whidbey is in Island County, Washington and Whidbey Care Net currently serves:

Central Whidbey Island Fire Rescue
City of Langley Police Department
Island County 911 Dispatch
Island County Sheriff
South Whidbey Fire/EMS
Whidbey General Hospital EMS

This is an important service for our first responders. Co-director Rob Harrison explains that their mission is, “1) to bring awareness to a growing problem (PTSD) among emergency responders; 2) bring awareness to our organization’s mission, which is to provide emergency responders with the services they need to heal body and soul; and 3) open the door to establishing CareNet chapters throughout the country.”

I’d posit that members of the media might also need support after a tragedy like Newtown. Camera operators, reporters, photographers, producers, field sound operators, etc. all see things that are hard to digest and impossible to forget. They have to stuff it in order to do their jobs. Where does it go?

Perhaps as we start discussing mental health issues as they relate to violence we can also address them as they relate to average American citizens. Let’s work on making help more available and removing the stigma from asking for it. It is, after all, our precious humanity that makes us so susceptible to pain and loss; shouldn’t we be guarding and honoring our humanity?

If we spent more time focused on protecting and supporting our humanity, we might spend less time on the results of our loss of humanity. Either way, our first responders will be there when we need them most. Who will be there for them when they need support?

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