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Jennifer Mabee Dispatches

PTSD & CISM

Written by Jennifer Mabee   
Feb. 13, 2012 – Reading Laura's blog on the website last week brought up some all-but-forgotten memories for me with respect to PTSD. As soon as I saw those four letters, my mind instantly went back to a summer several years ago when I had the unfortunate experience of being first in on two back-to-back tractor trailer fires, both with fatalities.

In the first call, after we’d put the fire out and were just soaking down hot spots, my partner and I were standing inches from the victim and didn’t even realize it. I’d never seen a fire victim before and therefore was completely stunned when someone pointed the victim out to us in order to not disturb anything with the hose stream. The moment still seems surreal in my mind; I was momentarily stunned. We had a job to do so I shook it off and we carried on with our duties, cleared the scene and went back to the hall. There was some discussion about the call, as there is with all calls, and that seemed to be the end of it.

A week or so later, the pager went off for an MVC; tractor trailer verses a car. I was working in the hall at the time as the FPO and was again first one in on fire attack. Again, we put the fire out, and had dressed down while the Ontario Provincial Police were doing their investigation. It was extremely hot that day and I was standing down in the ditch with another firefighter and the captain, discussing how the accident appeared to happen, when something caught my attention. I turned to the captain to say something, and he abruptly said, "Let’s move back up to the road." Again, I hadn’t realized we were in close proximity to what turned out to be the second fire fatality in less than two weeks.

Once released, we returned to the hall and I honestly don’t remember much about the rest of that day. What I do remember is what happened after that.

I started to have trouble sleeping, I lost my appetite and I had weird images pop into my mind at odd times. Once, while I was driving, I remember glancing at a vehicle while it passed me on the highway and instantly see it crushed as if in an accident, or I’d see people in car accidents in my mind.

It was intense, and it was scary. My husband at the time (who was also on the department – he was the captain I mentioned) decided that it would be a good idea for us to get away with our two daughters for the weekend and take a break from the department.

We were heading up the highway in our vehicle and getting close to where the second call had occurred. I started having trouble breathing, my mind started racing and I remember saying to myself, "Can’t go that way, can’t go that way!” Just when I thought I was going to totally lose it, we turned off the highway. I was able to calm down again, but I realized that I needed help with the anxiety I was dealing with.

If I remember correctly, it was after those two calls (and my reaction to them) that we had the Georgian Critical Incident Stress Management Team come to our hall and talk to whoever wanted to be a part of the debriefing.

I personally found them to be very helpful in my understanding of the fact that, as they say, "I was having a normal reaction to an abnormal situation." I even went and took the CISM courses not long after that because I saw the need for that type of support system in the fire service. It may not be for everyone and not everyone will experience PTSD, however, for the ones that do, like in my case, it may be exactly what's needed.

That happened a long time ago, but when thinking about it now, the images of what I saw on those two calls are still crystal clear, like it was yesterday. Thankfully, they’re just images now; just memories of calls I’ve been at. They’re not accompanied by the anxiety, fear or overwhelm anymore. That’s what CISM did for me and I’m forever grateful.