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Franciscan Center program helps first responders deal with job's emotional toll Franciscan Center program helps first responders deal with job's emotional toll Franciscan Center program helps first responders deal with job's emotional toll

TAMPA — When a police officer or firefighter is killed in the line of duty, there's a public grieving process.

The community comes together and counselors rush in to the aid of the fallen's comrades.

But the everyday stresses of the job, especially the more traumatic scenes, often weigh heavy on first responders. And there's no public grieving process for that.

"That's not always the case when you lose someone in a way that people are not accustomed to," said Bradenton police Chief Melanie Bevan, who spoke Friday at the annual first responders' luncheon at the Franciscan Center in Tampa.

Sept. 29 is the feast day for St. Michael, the patron saint of first responders, and each year the center holds a luncheon, now in its third year, in honor on those who have been lost in the line of duty.

But those that attended the event were there to honor Operation Restore, a four-day program at the Franciscan Center where first responders learn to reprocess traumatic events through education, group processes and scientific methods.

The program is spearheaded by Sister Anne Dougherty, director of the Franciscan Center; it has received praise with first responders for its ability to heal.

Bevan, who previously worked as the assistant police chief in St. Petersburg, said many first responders suffer in silence. When she worked in St. Petersburg, she said about 10 officers died from suicide. In 2011, three of the department's officers were killed in the line of duty in one month in shoot-outs with suspects.

"That month kind of defined us," Bevan said. "It kind of separates us. There's a lot of pain that a lot of us have probably never really dealt with and got through. I really am an advocate for programs that help police officers recognize and understand what this job can do to them, and there's so much out there.

"This is what is going to save lives," the police chief said as she turned and faced Dougherty.

In a 2015 article published in the Journal of Emergency Medicine, a survey of more than 4,000 first responders found that 6.6 percent had attempted suicide, which is more than 10 times the rate of the general population.

It's that number that makes Operation Restore so important, said several first responders who attended the event.

For acting Tampa police Chief Brian Duggan, the program "was a life-changing experience."

"I'm a big advocate of it. I can tell you that some of our command staff has gone through it, our police officers who've gone through it have become big advocates of the program," Duggan said.

Tampa fire Chief Tom Forward said Dougherty frequently reaches out to his department and the area's law enforcement officers to unveil the resources she has to help those in need.

"So many times on calls, we embrace our jobs and our duties so respectfully and so responsibly, we very seldom seek out that help and support when we have situations going on in and of ourselves," Forward said.

Forward stressed the importance of relationships, saying Dougherty cultivates an "opportunity and a major, major godsend for us to come out in an environment, away from the world . . . because that's who we are. We're out there. We're in there. Every ill of society we deal with it day in and day out."

First responders, he said, have a way of building a wall of armor around their emotions "when inside, we're screaming. When inside, we're just not healthy and we're just not fit."

He encouraged more communication among all first responders, asking them to reach out to anyone who they see that could be struggling with their emotions.

"Sometimes we kick ourselves because an opportunity presented itself and we did nothing," Forward said.

Contact Crystal Owens at hillsnews@tampabay.com.

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