Debriefing a must for first reponders’ emotional, mental wellness

File photo Exhausted firefighters rest on the side of the ditch after working at the crash scene involving a Lakeview School bus that killed four children.

COTTONWOOD — Trained to act swiftly and effectively during an emergency situation, first responders are men and women who drop everything and help others, oftentimes putting their own health or lives on the line.

Some would call those firefighters, emergency medical technicians (EMTs), law enforcement, paramedics and other rescue personnel anonymous heroes. Their lives are filled with high stress, so how are they able to experience what they do and still keep it together?

Experts would say that quality support is instrumental when it comes to emotional and mental wellness for emergency responders.

“They’ve learned so much about people — if they don’t talk about it and they keep it bottled up — eventually it just becomes overwhelming for them,” Cottonwood Fire Chief Dale Louwagie said. “They’re starting to be more aware of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) in firefighters and ambulance crews. We now have more awareness of that.”

Ten years ago, the Cottonwood Fire Department responded to the Lakeview School bus crash which resulted in the death of four students — 13-year-old Jesse Javens, 12-year-old Reed Stevens, 9-year-old Hunter Javens and 9-year-old Emilee Olson.

“It was the worst day in my career,” Louwagie said.

Fourteen other students and two adults were also injured — many of them seriously hurt.

“I had nieces, nephews and cousins on the bus and one of the guys, Charlie Olson, lost his daughter,” Louwagie said. “In the moment, when something like that happens, your body releases so many chemicals that it kind of masks everything and somehow you’re able to do your job.”

But afterward, emergency responders need to address the trauma they witnessed.

“As fire chief, debriefing is a must for all of the firefighters after something like the bus crash,” Louwagie said. “That’s true for pretty much any fire department, ambulance or law enforcement involved. We oftentimes bring in four or five volunteers that work for a Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD).”

CISD is an intervention process that involves seven phases and a small group atmosphere.

“You go around and tell what you remember,” Louwagie said. “You talk about what you saw and felt. It kind of helps put the puzzle piece together. One of the things they talk about is this scene — it’s kind of like a movie in your head. Every once in awhile, you’ll replay it till a certain spot and then stop. Later, you play more of it.”

Marshall Fire Chief Marc Klaith said the Lakeview bus crash was also “by far the worst day” in his 30-year career as a firefighter.

“Some of those kids on the bus were the kids of Cottonwood firefighters,” he said. “That was their home. They’re from there. And when you’re from a small community, you get to know everybody.”

Rae Kruger, who was an Independent reporter in 2008, was on the perimeter of the crash scene that day.

“I was taking photos and watching as rescue workers climbed in and out of the back of the bus,” she said. “The looks on their faces — it was emotional. Yet, they were in control, you knew that because they continued to work.”

Later Kruger saw the toll that it was taking on everyone.

“It was later that I saw several firefighters sitting on the side of the ditch,” she said. “They looked exhausted and drained and sad.”

Klaith said one of the best ways to cope is by talking to your peers while being guided by professionals.

“It was a pretty traumatic experience, so that’s how you work through it,” Klaith said. “You hear about PTSD and it affects everybody, not just military. If you don’t deal with it, it will come up and hit you. You hear about it in the news. It’s real. But you can get through it and heal.”

Dan DeSmet, manager of North Memorial Ambulance-Marshall, said people need to remember that even though they have a lot of training and experience, all first responders are human.

“Pediatrics and kids are extra hard for first responders,” DeSmet said. “And knowing all the kids personally made it extra difficult for a lot of folks involved in the Lakeview bus crash. Even if you don’t personally know the families, our hearts go out to these folks, especially on the anniversaries. It does bring out more thoughts and prayers, which hopefully help the family and those involved in these kinds of things.”

In the days following the Feb. 19, 2008, tragedy, DeSmet said a lot of local personnel took part in debriefings.

“It’s an opportunity to start the healing process as well as the learning process,” he said. “You talk about what went well (professionally) — it’s something that is done with a lot of accidents and situations that arise.”

Louwagie said a lot of the first responders found some comfort in paying their respects at the funerals.

“For some it did help with the grieving part of it,” he said. “You’re kind of supporting each other and the families. You really can’t imagine, especially when you have kids the same age, what it would be like to be in their shoes.”

Unfortunately for some people involved in traumatic experiences, the healing is never complete.

“Debriefings allow people to let their emotions out, to relieve those feelings,” Klaith said. “It also helps give reasoning to why you do the things you do. When you’re in this job, you’re there to help. But with a tragedy like this, there will always be a spot there in your heart.”

For some, it helps to keep the good memories in the forefront.

“It’s probably different for everybody, but for me, I try to remember a good memory about them,” Louwagie said. “Emilee always had a smile on her face and was giggling. I’d play around with her at basketball games. And Reed Stevens and Jesse Javens were both in my son’s grade, so I knew them through school activities. I just try to remember the kids in that way instead of the day of the crash.”