You Are A Responder Too

By Brian Ligon, CPC
Communications & Marketing Director | City of Mont Belvieu, Texas

Stress. As communications professionals, we love to think we eat it for breakfast. When “it” hits the fan, we’re cool under the hot lights and smooth on the mic. Day to day, we wear five different hats and switch them minute to minute without blinking. We can handle it. 

Last year I added a hat to my professional wardrobe that came in the shape of a fire helmet. Yes, as a man in my mid-40s and the proud owner an already overloaded work and personal life, I thought it would be a great idea to enlist in Mont Belvieu’s volunteer fire academy. 

I’m already the police and fire PIO as a part of my day job, so why not be useful on a scene and then just switch gears when necessary. Right? Let me say that I’ve learned a lot about myself since I added this facet to my life. But I’ve also learned something important about us as PIOs.

On June 22, 2019, I was standing in my back yard. It was a beautiful evening; my barbecue apron had delicious stains, good music hung lightly in the air and smoke and meat mingled on the grill. It was my 17th wedding anniversary. As a gift to my wonderful wife, I promised that as a newly graduated Mont Belvieu volunteer firefighter there would be no rushing out of the house to answer the call today. Today was about family. 

I was happy in my space, and I reached to click the volume on the Bluetooth speaker up one more notch as Rush’s “Fly By Night” came on the playlist. As Geddy Lee’s voice soared, so did ambulance sirens from the fire station. It’s a common sound being that we live less than five minutes from the City Hall complex. 

But then another siren sounded. And a few minutes later another… but this one was accompanied by the blare of a familiar air horn. It was Engine One. I looked at my work cell to find I had an Active 911 notification that read “boating accident.” I ran through the house, got my radio out of my car and switched it on. 

The normally subdued radio erupted with traffic – two overloaded recreational boats have collided on the Trinity River, multiple CPR in progress, private boats bringing victims in. As I stepped back outside to shield my wife and son from the details, a LifeFlight helicopter roared fast and low over the house. My wife came out with my fire department t-shirt and cap in hand. She knew this was a day-job call. “I think you’d better check in,” she said as she took the meat off the grill for me. I keyed the mic.

“8086 to Trinity River command.”
“Go ahead 8086.”
“Need PIO or additional manpower on scene?”
“8086, roll PIO. Media arriving on scene.”
“Clear. 8086 in route.”

I still remember arriving to the scene vividly; seeing crimson stained white sheets hiding people shaped silhouettes laying on the dock and watching the distant expressions on the faces of my firefighter friends who just worked feverishly to try and save people they knew. The drone of the boats could be heard, idling in from the dark and slipping back out to the crash site. 

I’ll spare you the rest of the story. But I will share with you one big lesson from that day: we, as PIOs, do a terrible job of taking care of ourselves. 

You don’t think so? I didn’t either. 

It’s our job as our organization’s communicator to be the calm in the storm. But you know as well as I do there are still those moments that haunt you. That’s trauma, my friends. And you deal with it more than you think. It’s the constant brow beating you take on social media every day. It’s getting the late-night calls with the bad news so you can “work on it” and make it ready for morning news. It’s living on crackers and tepid coffee in an EOC while a hurricane wrecks the world outside. It’s being cool and collected while dealing with a tragedy that impacted your home too. It’s helping to pick up the pieces when a local hero is gone too soon.

In the days following the boat accident – just like the days after other difficult calls – I had what seemed like a parade of people come by my office, or send a text or a quick email simply asking “How are you doing? Are you okay?” What I have learned as someone who now rides the fence between responder and desk jockey is that our FD and PD friends do something that communicators are terrible about – they talk to each other. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines trauma as “an event, or series of events, that causes moderate to severe stress reactions.” They state that traumatic events can affect survivors and emergency workers as well as the friends and family of those who have been directly involved in a traumatic event. And, while you still may think the work you do doesn’t involve trauma, I would beg to differ. Signs of trauma often manifest themselves in what we flippantly call burnout; easily frustrated, blaming others, isolation from others, feeling like a failure, exhausted. Shall I go on? 

But here’s the good news: you’re okay. And as PIOs, we can support each other and take care of ourselves when we begin to feel what is often reserved for our uniformed co-workers. Consider using some easy strategies to better take care of yourself during high-stress situations:

  • Develop a buddy system; spread out your workload and keep an eye on each other
  • Limit your working hours to no more than 12-hour shifts
  • Talk with family, friends and co-workers about what you’ve experienced
  • Breathe. Just breathe. (Trust me, it works.)
  • It’s okay to draw boundaries and say “no”
  • Remind yourself that it is not selfish to take breaks

Get more information, resources and self-care strategies at Emergency Responders: Tips for taking care of yourself from the CDC. It’s a short read with a lot of good information. 

So yes, you are a responder; treat yourself like one. Now grab your nifty day-glow vest, trusty cell phone and well-worn note pad and charge headlong into the fray with confidence, my friend. But let me be the first to ask, “Are you okay?”