Major Incidents, News, Trauma

First Responder Training Taps Mental Toughness

PORTLAND, Maine — Carl Pabst has persevered while living with excruciating headaches, a constant pain exacerbated by stress and chaotic noise.

The Department of Homeland Security had people like Pabst in mind when it awarded Alpha One a $30,000 grant to teach how to be resilient in the face of disaster and prolonged crisis.

The training program by Alpha One, a support organization for people with disabilities, is not taught for people with disabilities but by them, for the benefit of public safety workers.

Pabst and others who continually confront stress and setbacks are ideal candidates to teach resilience, that quality of being able to persevere through hardship without succumbing to despair, says Ronald Breazeale, a psychologist who founded the Maine Resilience program.

”If you live in our society with a disability, you sure as heck better be resilient or you don’t survive,” said Breazeale, the American Psychological Association’s public education coordinator in Maine.

The Alpha One trainers will hold training sessions for fire chiefs and supervisors next month. Future sessions are planned for area police agencies.

Whether it be the carnage of a violent car accident or the prolonged stress of a Hurricane Katrina or Sept. 11 terrorist attack, firefighters and police often bear the brunt of the emergency response and can suffer psychologically as a result.

That’s why the Maine Emergency Management Agency supported Alpha One’s grant application to give resilience training to first responders.

”There’s no doubt that this is a stressful business, and people in our profession probably see a lot of things we shouldn’t have to see,” said Scarborough Fire Chief Michael Thurlow, who heads a group of Cumberland County fire chiefs.

Thurlow noted how some of his junior firefighters helped respond to a triple homicide in Old Orchard Beach in which a couple and their son were killed and their house set on fire. Searching the house for survivors – and then removing the bodies – would take a toll on anyone, Thurlow said.

The upcoming training will not only help firefighters deal with prolonged stress and adversity, but it also will help supervisors recognize and encourage qualities that help a person cope, he said.

The Homeland Security grant will cover the cost of five Cumberland County training seminars a year for three years. The six-hour seminars are designed to yield people who are qualified to conduct four-hour basic training sessions in their departments.

Ensuring that public safety personnel can handle the mental rigors of their jobs – particularly during an extended crisis such as Hurricane Katrina – is as important as physical conditioning and technical know-how, Breazeale said.

Public safety workers routinely undergo critical stress debriefings following traumatic incidents, but they will respond better if they train themselves beforehand, he said.

”Part of being ready and prepared for disaster is being able to build and support these skills,” Breazeale said, ”just like you reinforce the bridge so it’s less likely to be washed away in the next flood.”

Breazeale says some people are naturally resilient, but the skills can be taught and can be exercised. The Alpha One trainers are effective because they speak from experience and they can demonstrate how being resilient improved their quality of life and their effectiveness.

People with disabilities face unforeseen challenges every day. A person in a wheelchair will find out that someone who isn’t disabled parked in the handicapped space, or won’t see a sloped path onto a sidewalk. They become adept at problem-solving and being flexible and learn to develop support networks.

Pabst, 60, suffered a head injury in an industrial accident that left him with chronic pain. Crowds and loud noise can make the pain worse, and he might have been tempted to stay inside and avoid people.

”It’s such a dark, dreary, unhappy place to become disabled and be taken out of the world,” he said. ”It’s very frightening. It’s as if you’ve just been pushed out of life.”

”I know several people who are disabled who are still so angry. They carry it around …”

Pabst learned he had a stronger will than he had thought. Rather than giving in to self-pity, he became involved in teaching diversity in schools. A willingness to help others is a key quality of resilience, he said.

”The best method to get out of a funk is to be of service to others. Helping others takes attention away from you,” he said.

Pabst stays busy making a variety of finely crafted canes, but he says that that work keeps him from interacting with people.

Another trainer, Marilyn Morel, is a former nurse supervisor at the University of New England medical clinic. She was in a car accident 13 years ago and had to learn to use a wheelchair. Now, when she travels with her husband, she expects challenges and difficulties.

”We decided we’re not going to let this get to us or we’ll always stay home,” she said. She relies on relaxation techniques when stress and pain become too intense, one of the resilience skills people can learn and practice.

For Georgeanne Small, 64, a key quality of resilience is being able to adapt to changing circumstances.

”I have MS (multiple sclerosis.) That has an effect on every part of my life,” says Small, a former Biddeford librarian who also is a resilience instructor. ”I’m high-maintenance. You just need to adapt.”

She also has identified qualities that interfered with her resilience. Before her illness, she rarely took care of her own health, doting instead on the rest of the family. And when asked about the worst experiences of her life during a resilience exercise, she found it was those times when she blamed herself for something going wrong.

She’s since learned to stop blaming.

”You can’t control certain situations. You kind of have to let go of that control and go forward,” she said.

Humor, too, is important, she said.

”I’m not saying it’s a walk in the park – or in my case, a roll through the park,” she quipped.

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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