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WHAT KILLS FIRST RESPONDERS: Efforts underway to combat deadly stress of emergency work

March 24, 2019
Pocatello Fire Department Capt. Andy Moldenhauer, pictured, recently received an award from the American Red Cross for helping paramedic Dustin Hale, who was suicidal, get help for his severe post-traumatic stress injury.

Dustin Hale sought to cope with the anguish he routinely encountered as a Pocatello Fire Department paramedic by mentally absorbing victims’ pain and cramming it into his own psyche.

“Some of us, like myself, we take a lot of the pain and what the families and patients are feeling and try to take it away from them by taking it on ourselves,” Hale explained.

After several years of treating trauma, Hale’s inner turmoil boiled over, culminating last fall with him holding a gun to his own head. It’s a story he’s embarrassed to tell but shares publicly, hoping to convince first responders to be open about the extreme stress they experience and to seek help when needed.

It’s a timely message. Four other members of the Pocatello Fire Department have sought help via a post-traumatic stress injury, or PTSI, rehabilitation program during the past year and a half, according to their local union leader. A cross section of department members also plan to take peer support training offered through their international union, during which they’ll learn to identify colleagues with PTSI and take appropriate steps to help them.

Snake River Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 35 plans to bring in a renowned speaker on PTSI at 6 p.m. July 15 at the Blackfoot Performing Arts Center, 870 S. Fisher Ave. in Blackfoot.

The state has also taken recent action to address the problem of emergency service workers experiencing PTSI, passing a law on March 13 extending workers’ compensation to cover the mental health condition for law enforcement officers, 911 dispatchers, firefighters and paramedics.

“There’s no one who does the job that (stress) doesn’t affect,” Hale said. “Without the proper outlet and the proper care as far as mental health goes, sometimes that can turn into an actual injury. That’s where PTSI comes in.”

In Hale’s case, PTSI caused recurrent night terrors and impeded his ability to get sufficient sleep. He began drinking heavily to help himself “pass out” and he started missing a lot of work — both due to his fatigue and the dread of encountering additional stress.

“I left the department because of how it has affected me,” Hale said. “It made it really hard to function in everyday life.”

One day last fall, Hale’s sister along with his co-worker Andy Moldenhauer, a Pocatello Fire Department captain and president of Pocatello Firefighters Local 187, showed up at his house after they’d been unable to reach him by phone. Moldenhauer said his friend appeared shell shocked when they arrived. Hale admitted to them that he’d been holding his gun and contemplating suicide.

They convinced Hale, who is a U.S. Navy veteran, to seek treatment and Moldenhauer personally drove him to a Veterans Administration therapy and rehabilitation program in Salt Lake City. Hale later underwent additional mental health treatment at an International Association of Firefighters-affiliated rehabilitation center for emergency workers in Baltimore.

“Suicide is the No. 1 killer of first responders right now,” Hale said. “The International Association of Firefighters estimates one in five first responders is suffering from PTSI in some form or another.”

Moldenhauer was honored by the American Red Cross on March 7 with an East Idaho Real Heroes Award for his role in helping Hale. Coincidentally, Hale won the same award in 2016 for searching a residence filled with dangerous levels of carbon monoxide and helping to save the life of the man inside the home.

Moldenhauer said three members of the Pocatello Fire Department have already undergone peer support training to help department members suffering from PTSI. He said the Pocatello Fire Department decided to address the PTSI issue after a popular Blackfoot firefighter committed suicide late last fall.

“There are a lot of calls you go to and see something people aren’t intended to see,” Moldenhauer said. “Some people handle that better than others and some people can get past it, but it leaves an impression on everybody.”

Symptoms of PTSI can include heavy drinking, irritability, a quick temper and difficulty sleeping. Modlenhauer admits he’s personally experienced some of those symptoms and believes many firefighters exhibit them without recognizing the cause.

He and five other members of the Pocatello Fire Department were present at the Idaho Capitol in Boise to hear state lawmakers debate the bill to make PTSI an eligible condition for workers’ compensation for emergency workers. Moldenhauer was also one of three Pocatello firefighters present when Gov. Brad Little signed the bill into law earlier this month.

“I think one of the most important things about this law is it helps take a little bit of the stigma off of the injury,” Moldenhauer said.

Blackfoot police officer Greg Austin, who is president of his local police union, said police and fire departments from throughout the state have already called him to express interest in hearing the PTSI speaker he’s booked for July 15, Sheriff Timothy Whitcomb of the Cattaraugus County Sheriff’s Office in New York state.

Austin said some Blackfoot police officers attended Whitcomb’s February talk in Nashville, Tennessee, and his message resonated with them.

“This is my 25th year in law enforcement and you deal with death on a daily basis,” Austin said. “That stuff builds up after a while. It’s going to affect you one way or another no matter how you deal with it.”

Austin can empathize with police officers and other first responders who struggle with PTSI. About a decade ago, his police vehicle was hit by a car during a pursuit.

“It’s been something I’ve fought for the past 10 years,” Austin acknowledged.

He knows of a few other members of the Blackfoot Police Department who are still haunted by a triple homicide and suicide case from 14 years ago.

“Our hopes in bringing in the speaker is to help other first responders develop ways to deal with (stress) and be able to speak with one another and vent,” Austin said.

Austin said the Idaho Fraternal Order of Police was also a strong proponent of the new PTSI workers’ compensation law. He explained that the law is aimed at providing emergency responders with the help they need to cope with their stress before it becomes a problem. It’s hoped that by getting the necessary PTSI treatment, the responders will be able to remain on the job.

Hale’s doctors have advised him resuming work as a paramedic is not an option and he needs to find a new career. For the time being, however, Hale’s full focus is on his recovery.

He still experiences short-term memory problems — a common issue for people who have experienced severe PTSI. He writes himself notes to avoid forgetting about his obligations.

“I still have a really hard time around groups of people or people I don’t know,” Hale said. “I still do have nightmares. They’ve gotten better with the treatment, but by no means have they gone away.”

The good news is that Hale considers himself to be generally healthy now, and he’s pleased by the recent emphasis the state and local emergency responders have placed on addressing the problem that derailed his career.

“The biggest thing is to not try to handle everything on your own — to be willing to ask for and accept help as soon as it’s needed,” Hale said.