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Matters Of The Mind: Trauma Takes A Toll On First Responders

BOSTON (CBS) - One-third of firefighters, police officers and emergency medical workers exposed to a traumatic call will be profoundly and deeply affected by what they've seen, according to research from Massachusetts first responder advocates.

For Hayden Duggan of Westminster, the call that changed the path of his career was a house fire in the 1980's where a 12-year-old girl was said to be trapped on the second floor.

Read: More Matters Of The Mind

"We gave up on fire suppression and just dumped the house looking for her," said Duggan. Later Duggan and his fellow firefighters found the girl dead in the cellar of the home.

"I thought I was fine. In this business we say fine is fouled-up, insecure, needy and emotional," he says with wisdom he didn't have at the time. "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen."

Hayden Duggan (WBZ-TV)

For Duggan, the job was never quite the same after that particular call. He coped with his guilt by self-medicating with alcohol. Duggan spent eight years in the grips of alcoholism and in the process, quit doing the job he loved.

When he finally got help, Duggan realized there was a need for something to help first responders unpack the heavy weight they carry on a daily basis. He says traditional hospitals are necessary for acute cases and outpatient therapy is critical for maintenance of emotional and mental well-being. But what if there could be something in between the two? With his wife Valerie, Duggan created On Site Academy in 1992, a safe place specifically designed for firefighters, police officers and emergency medical workers to receive peer support and work out their issues.

On Site Academy (WBZ-TV)

On Site Academy is a 27 acre farm where visitors check-in for a week and participate in group sessions, as well as more targeted therapy sessions working on techniques like rapid eye movement. It's a non-profit group that never turns down a first responder in need because of an inability to pay for treatment. Last year they welcomed about 200 residential guests, 98 percent of whom were from Massachusetts. This year On Site has already seen twice as many patients as they did over the same time period last year.

Duggan is a Harvard trained psychologist who also works closely with the City of Boston and Massachusetts's network of Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) teams. Those 17 CISM teams serve as a frontline of support for fellow first responders. Volunteers train for ways to approach coworkers and listen for signs they might be struggling. The CISM teams respond to seven types of critical incident calls that could take a toll on first responders, ranging from a line-of-duty death of a coworker to abnormal threats to personal safety.

"It's a peer driven, clinically guided approach," explains Charlie Popp, the state's CISM network coordinator.

Charlie Popp (WBZ-TV)

The discussions among CISM volunteers and their coworkers are confidential and voluntary, a necessary provision according to the teams.

"People still see it as a sign of weakness if they have to reach out for help but it's not," Meg Carrigan of the Cambridge Fire Department's CISM team. The 8-year veteran firefighter and registered nurse is one of 20 CISM team members serving Cambridge's 280 firefighters.

"These are normal reactions from normal people who experience abnormal trauma," says Popp. "We have the same problems everybody else has, but then on top of that we have repeated exposure to traumatic incidents which takes a toll, even when we don't like to admit it."

Supporting stress management for first responders is a movement Duggan says is sweeping the country, and with good reason.

"I would argue to you it's a public health issue. Who do you want out there? You want a police officer, a medic, an EMT or a firefighter who is healthy? Who is sober and clean and doing the job, well? Who is highly trained and professional? Is that who you want out there? Then take care of them."

For more information on getting help, please see this note from the reporter.


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