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Firefighters more susceptible to PTSD symptoms

LAWRENCEVILLE -- Firefighters are a resilient lot. But, odds are, all five members of the Gwinnett County crew taken hostage at gunpoint this week are hurting.

"The truth of the matter is, after a traumatic event, and this certainly qualifies as a traumatic event, symptoms of (post-traumatic stress disorder) are the normal response," Dr. Barbara Rothbaum, the director of Emory University's Trauma and Anxiety Recovery Program, told the Daily Post.

Rothbaum works daily with individuals -- primarily military veterans, police officers and firefighters -- living with various anxiety disorders like PTSD, obsessive compulsive disorder and phobias.

The men taken hostage for about three hours Wednesday by Suwanee resident Lauren Holman Brown are purported to be coping well, and are undergoing the counseling offered by Gwinnett County Fire and Emergency Services. They were praised by police and fire officials alike for their calmness that day, even as a SWAT team swarmed into the home amid light grenades and gunfire.

Forsyth County Fire Division Chief of Operations Kevin Wallace helped transport the families of those involved to Gwinnett fire headquarters Wednesday afternoon.

"I couldn't imagine," he said. "I've been doing this 25 years, and our job is to assist the public with emergency situations ... You don't expect to walk into a situation of that nature."

It's what comes next that may be the hardest for those firefighters, whose identities have not yet been released and whose experience, spokesman Capt. Tommy Rutledge said, ranges from one year on the force to 20.

"Externally they are trained in looking calm and thinking in a crisis," Rothbaum said. "I'm sure that did help them a lot, but it doesn't mean they're calm on the inside and it doesn't mean it had no impact on them."

To ask the question directly: Are firefighters more or less likely to suffer from PTSD than the average person?

The truthful answer: More.

"They do tend to be a resilient group," Rothbaum said. But more exposure to potentially traumatic events also equals increased risk.

"With PTSD and trauma it's so complicated," Rothbaum said. "It can be partly biological predisposition, how we handle stress, and some of that is genetic, some of that is how we learned to do things."

Training and experience can make a difference, obviously, but "if your life is in danger, your life is in danger whether you've been on the job one year or on the job for 20 years."

Gwinnett County Fire Chief Bill Myers said this week that the crew was doing "remarkably well," and that he expected its members to "be fine" in the long run. They'll get some type of down time, though exactly how long is yet to be determined.

If PTSD-type symptoms -- ranging from nightmares and sleeplessness to hyperactivity and "avoidance" -- last more than a month or so, Rothbaum said, that's when a true diagnosis may be in order. While those symptoms are normal initially, they should wane over time.

"A determination will be made as to how much time they need, and that will be made on an individual basis," Myers said. "We'll certainly see to that."

Meanwhile, Commission Chairwoman Charlotte Nash offered her own words of encouragement to Gwinnett County's finest.

"While I wish that our employees and their families could have been spared the risk and stress they went through on Wednesday, I have never been prouder of our county public safety folks," she wrote in an email. "They all displayed absolute professionalism and bravery throughout the situation. Without the level of calmness and patience they demonstrated, things could easily have spiraled out of control."

-- Senior writer Camie Young contributed to this article

Comments

JimmyOrr 1 year ago

Mr. Stepp, I surmise your son's two tours were either in Afghanistan or Iraq. Whether Afghanistan or Iraq your son has stood in the gap on my behalf and that of my fellow countrymen. I regret to hear that he suffers from severe PTSD. I appreciate his willingness to put himself bewteen me and those who would do me, my fellow countrymen, and our country harm. I appreciate his standing in the gap for me and my kith and kin. I appreciate his service to our country. Whether they be first responders (Fire, Police, EMT) or members of our armed forces, ALL are the epitome of Isaiah 6:8 (KJV).

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DonPedro_SanGomez_de_Martinez 1 year ago

Well said Jimmy!

"Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway." - John Wayne

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Why_not 1 year ago

Firefighters are ordinary people dealing with extraordinary situations on a daily basis. Those that make it thru the first three years will usually make it a life's calling.......they all have my utmost respect.

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