Emotional toll

Memories of trauma, death linger for responders

Altoona firefighter Capt. Matt Sunderland suits up for a run. Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec, photo illustration by Nick Anna

A few Altoona firefighters agreed to sit down at the Washington Avenue station and talk about how the death and destruction they’ve encountered as first responders has impacted them.

“We could talk about it for hours,” said Cameron Sunderland, 30.

But it wasn’t that long before the interview was interrupted by an ear-splitting alarm.

“Here we go,” Assistant Chief Matt Detrich said.

The voice of the 911 operator announced the basics over the radio: “Motor vehicle accident with injuries.”

Retired Logan Township Police Chief Ron Heller said he hid his PTSD for years. Heller, a former Marine, said PTSD carried a stigma, but he sought help, and said counseling has been effective. Mirror photo by Russ O’Reilly

“Damn,” Detrich said.

The voice gave the address: “Union Avenue and 10th Avenue.”

Sunderland ran out the door without saying anything more than “I got it” and without knowing what he’d have to deal with when he arrived at the scene.

It’s not just the fatal fires they fight, but emergency medical calls and car accidents resulting in deaths can have a lasting affect on them, as well.

“You build up an emotional shell so that you can deal with the tragedy and not become affected to where it affects your job,” Detrich said. “When you do that, you have to know when to turn it on and turn it off. Some people are better at it.

“If you are not doing that, then it ends up to where you start having issues. You end up with possibly PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder. And there are a lot of guys walking around in the fire service across the country who have PTSD.”

High rates of PTSD

PTSD and depression rates among firefighters and police officers have been found to be as much as five times higher than the rates within the civilian population, which causes first responders to commit suicide at a higher rate — about 18 per 100,000 versus 13 per 100,000 among civilians, according to a report by the Ruderman Family Foundation.

That report on mental health and suicide of first responders examined a number of factors contributing to mental health issues among first responders and what leads to their elevated rate of suicide.

One study included in the report found that, on average, police officers witness 188 “critical incidents” during their careers.

Detrich, 48, has lost track of the fatalities that he’s responded to over his 33-year career: He started in the volunteer system, and for the last 22 years has been in the career system.

Detrich said he was a sensitive kid who would become emotional if he saw a dog get hit by a car or queasy if he saw blood in a safety video at school.

“So I joined the volunteer fire service. Naturally it was, ‘OK, this is interesting; what do I do?”’ he said. “But I didn’t know they went to car accidents. And the first time I went to a car accident, I didn’t get up close to it because I thought, ‘I don’t think I can do this.’ I didn’t know they got involved in this. … But I didn’t want to quit because I liked the fire service. So I kind of mentally eased myself into it, psychologically.”

His training prepared him, Detrich said.

“My first fatal car accident call, I remember like it was yesterday. I was ready for it,” he said. “And I was talking to myself ‘you’re good, you’re going to be all right,’ and after that, it made it easier to where I was learning to build up that emotional wall. And then you keep it for years and years and years. But you got to know when to back it off because it affects your home life. I know it did affect mine. I probably lost a relationship over it. I wasn’t married, but I would have, and it became to where it ended.”

Child deaths

especially hard

Detrich said he doesn’t know how he’ll be able to handle another death of a child.

“I can tell you now: If I go to another child-in-a-fire fatality or a car accident, I will probably have to step away from the scene and take a breath alone in my vehicle because I’ve had one little boy murdered in a fire. … And then we had this little girl and a baby and mother all die in a bathroom. In 22 years, those were the kids who died in fires, not to mention all the EMS calls for SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome).”

Sunderland, who later returned to the interview, said he had one of the worst calls of his career a couple of months ago; it was a horrible incident, he said, involving a baby.

“You struggle with the fact when you get home. Do you make an appearance at the viewing or the funeral?” he asked. “Is the family going to look at you like you didn’t do enough? Do I support the family, or are they going to look down on me because I didn’t save their loved one? It’s a horrible struggle. You don’t know what to do.”

Time passes, and he doesn’t think about fatalities on the job all the time, but mental images of certain calls surface unexpectedly.

It’s happened when he’s out hunting. Alone in the wilderness, he’s remembered things like the Velcro shoes worn by a 3-year-old boy who died on an EMS call to which he responded.

“You could just be sitting in the woods, and out of nowhere, you are picturing this kid and what they are wearing. It’s like, ‘Where did that come from?’ and ‘Why am I thinking about this right now?'” he said. “I can remember a 3-year-old that we had, I can walk in the house; I know exactly where he was laying, what toy he had in his hand, what shoes he was wearing — he was wearing Velcro shoes. We had a little girl. She had SIDS. I think she was only 6 months or so. I remember the pink dress she was wearing; I remember her earrings. … And this poor little girl we had just a month or two ago, I remember where she was laying, the toy that was nearby.”

Worst part is

the unknown’

Firefighters usually hand off the patients to hospital personnel.

“The worst part is the unknown,” Sunderland said. “You leave them at the hospital and don’t know until the obituary comes out. At the scene of a dwelling fire, if we find somebody inside, because we are so short-staffed here in the city, I pull somebody out and hand them off. I don’t have time to sit and think ‘What was their status? Are they alive? Did they succumb to their injuries?’ We have 10 other tasks we have to do. So we get the victim out whether you know they are deceased or not. You can’t dwell on it because you got something else to do. … So you don’t have time to actually sit and think about what you just encountered maybe until you are home with your family, and that’s not the time or place to. They don’t need to know all that stuff.”

Detrich said there are 13 guys minimum on a shift.

“As he (Sunderland) said, if it was a larger city with more manpower, you may, as a chief managing this, pull these guys aside, give them a break and make sure they are squared away after they pull a patient out of a fire and hand them off to EMS. There’s simply no time right now for that. We kind of do that at the end. But does that affect guys.”

‘Winner and a loser’

Once you start becoming subjected to fatalities on the job, Detrich said fellow firefighters must support each other.

“If you don’t have the peer group support to where you talk, then you bottle it up and personalities change, withdrawal, aggression, short tempers, and the reason for that is when you look at firefighting, the word says ‘fight;’ there’s a winner and a loser,” he said. “If you save a building, it’s a win. When it’s torn down two days later, even though we won, it’s like, ‘What’s the sense?’ It’s 10 times that when it comes to life. When you come to a loss, it’s a loss.”

The city of Altoona has an employee assistance program that provides counseling for first responders, and that program is being pushed because of the awareness of PTSD and even suicide among first responders.

Images etched

in memory

Retired Logan Township Police Chief Ron Heller said he hid his PTSD for years.

Heller is a former Marine. When he was 18, he spent 17 months in Vietnam, where he wore the same blood-soaked uniform day after day and saw men blown up by enemy rockets.

“You have this image of being big and bad, but inside it’s sometimes different,” Heller said. “And like I said, my experience is probably different than a whole lot of people. … I went from one job, from fire fights and killing the enemy and seeing fellow Marines blown up, to being a police officer and seeing deaths, suicides and homicides on a regular basis. And you become hardened to that. It affects you, but you just do the job.”

Heller was with Logan Township police for 40 years.

“I can remember a homicide years ago where I got called at home to bring my dog, to find body parts because the homicide — the actors tried to make it look like some satanic ritual type thing,” he said. “They carved things in her body, cut body parts off and threw her out off the side of the road. I know police officers have PTSD from what they experience. I mean, to show up on a call — and I remember. I was brand new and we had a report of a child missing, 2-month-old, and ended up we found it, wrapped up in sheets underneath a mobile home in Greenwood.”

Heller didn’t start counseling until about five years ago.

“I think when I retired, the PTSD reared its ugly head,” he said. “Because I wasn’t busy, you know, I’m retired. I can sit and read the newspaper as long as I want,” he said.

Until about 10 or 15 years ago, Heller said, PTSD carried a stigma.

“I know I hid it for years because I was a police officer, and I wanted my job, and people thought you were nuts if you had PTSD,” he said. “And that’s not true. You learn to deal with it, but (as) first responders, firemen, policemen, paramedics, you deal with it on a regular basis.”

Rain relentlessly drummed the roof overhead as Heller, 68, sat on his back deck in Lakemont.

“My nightmares and my reactions, I was dealing with it more and more,” he said. “You have nightmares of incidents or things that happened, and I would do things in my sleep. Wake up and my better half would have to get control of me to calm me down. So I sought help and I’m doing pretty good in dealing with it.”

Counseling is effective, Heller said.

“For me, it’s helped a lot. I still have nightmares, but not as often,” he said. “When you wake up, it’s like ‘What just happened?’ You think you are there, you are the scene of an accident with dead children. … So I would hope that first responders are not afraid to seek help. It’s what you do. I mean, I’m proud of what we do on a daily basis, so it’s OK.”

Volunteers sought

The Marklesburg Volunteer Fire Department has lost volunteers because of what they’ve encountered, said Chief Marlin Hunsicker.

“It’s harder being a volunteer fire department because you depend on volunteers,” Hunsicker said. “If someone sees something, and they are paid, you hire someone new. In a volunteer company, you try to get people, but it’s getting harder and harder to find volunteers, so if someone sees something and then quits, it not only affects the fire department by losing a volunteer, it adversely affects the community that there is one less to help there in the time of need.

“And over the years, we have lost people due to incidents where they’ve seen young children or someone who was killed and it just affected them. They just don’t want to see it again, and I understand it. It’s hard.”

Hunsicker has a full-time job owning a construction business in addition to spending hours each day running the fire department that is the first to arrive when incidents happen at Raystown Lake, which attracts more than 1 million visitors annually.

“Usually after an incident fatality, I do try to talk to all the personnel there that dealt with it to make sure everything is fine,” he said. “If they need to talk to somebody, we’ll get them,” he said. “We’ll do what we got to do. Even if it’s a neighboring agency assisting us, I try to ask them if they are OK, to try to keep people — so we don’t lose people, so to speak.”

The department’s water rescue team recovered one body from the lake in February, Hunsicker said. The victim committed suicide.

From water incidents to alcohol-related incidents to boating accidents, “You name it, it happens,” he said.

“Everyone is susceptible to PTSD,” he said. “It’s just how much can you take. How much can you deal with? Everyone has a breaking point. It’s just how much does it take to get to that point?”

Mirror Staff Writer Russ O’Reilly is at 946-7435.