Heroes, no matter how strong, sometimes need help too. That was just part of an all-encompassing message to a collection of the area’s own local heroes on Wednesday.
More than 100 of Williams County’s police, EMS, fire and communications personnel heard from one of their own who had experienced several life-altering incidents under the weight of the job.
Among topics broached by the speaker, Groveport Police Chief Ralph Portier, were how and why to talk about struggle and ways to lighten that load, during a seminar entitled “Dying in Blue” at the Quality Inn in Holiday City.
The event was sponsored by the Montpelier Police Reserve Unit and followed the tragic death of Williams County Sheriff’s Deputy Mick Frisbie in May.
“There is not a single person in this county who was not affected by that. Regardless of the reason, you cannot ignore these kind of events that happen,” said Portier. “The only thing we can do is move on a little bit, not forget in any way, shape or form, but carry the positive legacy of those people who have gone before us.
“This should open everyone’s eyes, that there is no county immune to this.”
According to Portier, 85 percent of first responders say they have experienced a mental health issue, and 84 percent say they experienced a traumatic event on the job. Additionally, there have been 114 law enforcement officers suicides and 55 firefighter suicides in 2019 in the U.S. as of last Sunday.
Portier, who once came close to attempting suicide, has seen his fair share of traumatic events in his many decades of service wearing many hats, from a hotel fire that killed 10 and injured 82, to several incidents in which those close to him or his family were killed, leading him to withdraw from his family’s support and into a destructive habit for a time.
“We felt something, but we couldn’t say it,” said Portier of the hotel incident. “We were afraid to say it.”
“We don’t get the luxury of being able to turn the TV off because we don’t like the program,” said Portier, noting cumulative secondary trauma is experienced by all first responders who work to help others in dire situations.
Portier hammered his point home by asking those gathered if they’d rather die by getting hit by a Mack truck or being stung by thousands of bees, comparing the constant emotionally jarring images and interactions of a job as a first responder to the latter.
“... We put the uniform right back on. We don’t think about what happened the last day, two years ago,” he said, strongly emphasizing that first responders are not immune to trauma, no matter how tough they are.
It was an important message for both the first responders and dispatchers gathered, but also the politicians such as the Williams County Commissioners and media who attended, who can in turn help make decisions and inform the public.
“Awareness is the key to prevention, there’s no two ways about it,” he said, characterizing most existing first responder mental health programs as being “post-incident” rather than preventative. “We don’t have an easy job and I’m trying to get everybody to look at first responders as humanly as possible. There’s pain and there’s agony.”
Portier spoke of the macho mindset in the field that can sometimes lead to harmful silence, encouraging those listening to cease to be a “cop” and “be a human” when believing one of their brethren to be struggling.
He advised them to look to each other and to their families for support, and also to not be afraid to seek professional help.
“We are so good at keeping it inside of us. We try to hide it,” he said. “At the end of the day, the end of the week, the end of the year, you’re going to implode.
“Don’t think they don’t see what you go through; They can see it in you,” Portier said of first responder families.
“We do care. All of us. Look around,” he said of their colleagues. “This is your support group, or at least a base for a support group.”
He also spoke about how to lessen the impact of their struggles on families. Portier revealed that 20 percent of officers involved in shootings are divorced within a year and divorce is 10 to 20 percent higher among law enforcement than the general population.
Other topics discussed included methods and strategies for those in attendance to speak about their problems, how to be mindful about how their communication is received amongst their peers, how to better cope with pain, how to recognize signs and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression and resources to utilize.
“If you don’t vent, eventually you’ll hold onto it,” he said, citing laughter, talking with significant others, family and friends as well as rest, good diet, exercise and faith as some of the best medicine.
But Portier also spoke about signs to watch for among themselves, friends, family and co-workers, which can help in any line of work, citing sleepless nights, short fuses, conflict and feeling lost as major signs, as well as directly and indirectly communicated references to suicide.
For those individuals feeling the weight themselves, he advised not keeping it inside and disregarding perceived stigma. Portier indicated 39 percent of first responders say there are negative repercussions for seeking mental health help at work.
“You can’t be afraid to talk about it ... Make it a part of who we are,” said Portier. “Because we can fix it if you do that.”
A call to action
Montpelier Police Chief Dan McGee issued a call to action following the program, calling for collective formalization of processes to help county and municipal emergency response personnel if a perceived mental health issue arises.
“The prevention side of this is the only way. If we allow somebody to take their own life, it’s too late. The prevention side, we have to be better on,” said McGee.
McGee said he asked the Toledo Police Department several years ago how they would respond if an officer was struggling, and the department of 900 told him they didn’t have an internal policy and they sent issues to external agencies. McGee was surprised and said that his own department doesn’t have such a process in place.
“I feel like we need, as the public service community, to have a plan. If something traumatic happens, I tell you right now I’m not going to be thinking straight in how to deal with that,” said McGee.
“So what I’m hoping the end result of this is, is that we as a community, maybe we can draft a plan we can follow for our fire, EMS, police offices. So when we see something going on, there’s a resource we can reach right away.
“We have to get past our egos. We have to get past a lot of things, but what I’m hoping (is) we can bring some awareness to this issue.”