First responders open up about the toll trauma takes

PANOLA COUNTY, Miss. — House fires, shootings, car crashes, murders. What happens when the crime tape comes down and the scene clears?

It can be a dark world for some first responders.

Jody Morris says one incident he still struggles with happened on a rural roadside in Courtland, Mississippi.

"When we arrived on scene, it was a scary feeling," he said.

Morris and other volunteer firefighters thought they were responding to a car fire that December night in 2014. Instead, they found a woman and her car doused in fuel and set on fire.

"She started walking up to us. I didn't recognize who she was. It was just, it scared us," he said. "It's something you don't ever want to see again."

Morris soon discovered he knew the woman.

"I have seen deceased victims in houses. I've pulled them out. I have never had one walk to me," he said.

His friend's sister, Jessica Chambers, was burned 98 percent of her body. She died hours later at the hospital.

"I took a year absence," he said.

It was the second time Morris took a leave of absence in the 16 years he's been a volunteer firefighter.

The first time was a few years before when a tree fell on top of a camper, trapping a baby and her grandmother.

"Once we arrived to the scene, the grandmother was deceased. The baby still had a pulse on her," he said.

Morris gave the baby CPR, but she didn't survive.

"She just looked like my baby. I went home. It was a rough call. I went home straight to my wife and kids. I just loved on them. Turned the radio off and didn't answer for sixth months," said Morris.

He said his stories echo so many other first responders.

"I don't think people realize what we endure out on the scenes," he said.

WREG sat down with a group of first responders in Panola County and listened to their experiences.

"I have calls. Yeah, I can't get rid of. It's not just one. Thirty-two years I've seen a lot of them. No, they don't go away," said John Havas, Sardis Lake Volunteer Fire's former chief and now chaplain. "Can’t remember hardly any of the ones we win, but I remember all of the ones we lost over 32 years."

"My mind is totally occupied as long as I am busy. Regardless of what the situation is, it's when you back off and absorb what you see. I think that affects a lot of the firemen and police officers," Panola County Sheriff Dennis Darby said .

"You can't be on the scene and all of a sudden start crying. It doesn't mean we are all strong men and don't go to the house and break down," Havas added.

SAMHSA reports researchers estimate 30 percent of first responders develop behavioral health conditions that can include depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. That's compared to 20 percent in the general population.

What's even more jarring: In 2017, suicide, which is a result of mental illness, left more officers and firefighters dead than line-of-duty deaths. That's according to The Ruderman Foundation.

Panola County offers first responders a critical stress debriefing after a traumatic experience.

"There's been discussion over the past several years of not making it an option, but it's one of those things, you are only going to get out of it what you put in," said Panola County Emergency Management Coordinator Daniel Cole.

Instead, many turn to faith and fellowship. They keep a close eye on their colleagues and intervene when needed.

"We watch out for our buddies too, now. You show signs and signals you pick up on," said Darby. "We’ve been through some wars together. It’s personal there. Knowing you have someone there you can depend on."

"As a fire chief they'll come to me and say how did that call affect you? I'll tell them, you know, vice-versa. They can vent," said Jason Coleman, Sardis Lake Volunteer Fire Department chief. "They can vent and often feel better."

"A lot of times I think it's dealt better within house. I'm sure that's with every department," he said.

"Can't nobody just do this. It's like being in war, getting shot at overseas and then coming back home," added Darby. "We love what we do. Wouldn’t change for it anything in the world."

"We are going to break down. We are going to have our moments. That`s the way of dealing with it. You got to let it out," said Havas.

Morris said he eventually let it out when he went to a counselor. It was help long overdue.

"Coming from experience it will mentally get to you. It will play a toll on your life, at the house and on the job," he said.

For decades, he says too many first responders haven't talked about the toll trauma can take. He said it's time to break that silence.

"Never hold it in. Find somebody to talk to," he said.

WREG also spoke to the Memphis Crisis Center about calls they get.

"You don’t have to have fully fledged diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder for trauma to influence your life. It’s really brain pain that people have to deal with," executive director Michael LaBonte said .

He said first responders are often dealing with chronic situations.

"Sometimes that event is acute. It’s a sexual assault or car accident or something like that. It can be something chronic such as someone who has been in a war zone. We know for example, especially first responders, military personnel are overly represented in that population," he said. "They may be struggling with something they brought back from their experiences."

If you or someone you know needs help, call the Memphis Crisis Center's 24-hour hotline at 901-274-7477.