Members of the area's emergency response personnel sat quietly inside Heartland Baptist Worship Center on Saturday morning to talk about one thing: fear. So often, first responders hide fear or sadness. This day, Dr. Jane Kendrick Lites asked more than 30 police officers, firefighters and medics what they were afraid of. The room was silent for nearly a long time before a voice from the back chimed in.
"I'm afraid of what I am going to find when I get to a scene," one firefighter said.
"I'm afraid of what I am going to have to do when I find it," a police officer added.
The session was one of two 90-minute seminars on how to process and handle fear, anger and daily stress on the job. The Storrs-Caroe Event was named after Robert Storrs Jr. and Jessica Caroe, a newly engaged couple who died in a traffic wreck on Interstate 24 in 2012.
"We're honored to be here," Robert Storrs, whose son was killed in the wreck, told the audience. "Every one of you are involved in other people's tragedy. But the love and compassion you all gave to us was amazing. We are glad to be here to give back just a little of what you gave us."
Storrs and Caroe were riding on a motorcycle on May 22, the day after Storrs asked Caroe for her hand in marriage, and were stopped in traffic near the Interstate 24 bridge to Illinois. A semi, driven by a man who later told police he was distracted and did not see that traffic had stopped, plowed into the line of cars. Both Storrs and Caroe died instantly. Paducah police and McCracken County sheriff's deputies, along with area fire departments and emergency personnel, responded.
Afterward, both departments brought in counselors and therapists to help officers cope with the horrific images of that day. One deputy with the sheriff's department - the first deputy to roll up on the wreck after it was reported - later left his job suffering with posttraumatic stress disorder.
A couple of months later, Storrs' parents, Ruthy and Robert Storrs, came back to McCracken County to visit the scene of the wreck for closure. They went to the McCracken County Sheriff's Department with a plate of cookies, and the department held an impromptu prayer for the family.
"I was surrounded by these men," Ruthy Storrs said. "They were all so tall and strong and in uniform, but what hit me was the softness of their prayer. I needed that. It was like a cool drink of water."
The Storrs family met with the deputy who suffered from PTSD and decided to turn their grief into something positive for first responders. They sent out a questionnaire to the police and sheriff's departments, asking officers and deputies what they believe would help them in the long run. The answer that came through the most was that officers wanted to hear from a professional who knew what it was like to be on the front lines.
Enter Chaplain Rob Michaels, head of Serve and Protect, an organization that specializes in faith-based dealings in trauma therapy and PTSD. Michaels, Lites and Mike Dye, author of the book "The Peacekeepers," and Paul Lee, president of the Fellowship of Christian Peace Officers, all traveled to Paducah with the Storrs family to put on two free seminars Saturday. The event also offered a seminar for the spouses of first responders.
"There are things that happen, like this car accident, and they leave a mark," Michaels said. "We have this cast iron shield over our hearts because that's the only way we can see what we see on a daily basis and survive. But an emotional wound can be just as deadly as a physical wound if left untreated."
The suicide rate among first responders is high, Michaels said. The divorce rate is even higher, with 75 percent of police and 87 percent of firefighters reporting at least one divorce. Paducah Fire Chief Steve Kyle said that limited budget wiggle room makes it hard to put extra resources into therapy or psychological treatment, but that he is becoming more aware of the growing issues and has made an effort to focus on them. Both Kyle and Paducah Police Chief Brandon Barnhill participated in the Saturday morning session.
"The stress we see is great, and especially now as we are being asked to do more with less," Barnhill said. "We're handling a lot. We are social workers in the field, medics, we do a little of everything. What you see and hear is just the tip of it."
The Storrs family scheduled Saturday's session to coincide with what would have been their son's 32nd birthday. They hope to bring the faith-based message to first responders in years to come, as well.
"They're people," Ruthy Storrs said. "They aren't just a uniform sitting in a car. They're human. To hope this would be something good is an understatement. We hope it will be miraculous."
Contact Corianne Egan, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8652 or follow @CoriEgan on Twitter.
posted on: Sunday, March 30, 2014 11:51 AM
Title: Emergency Responders
This seminar was great for the areas emergency responders, and hope that it helped them to be able to open up and talk about some of the experiences that they have unfortunately been involved in and witnessed. But, one thing the general public doesn't understand or may not even know(myself being general public) is that the police officers, firefighters, and ems are not the same. Yes, they do all work together when they are called to a tragic event and work great together. But, each have a very different role in that tragedy. And its very often that the EMS is not recognized for there role. These people are the ones that are knee deep in the horrible events that happen in the area, the ones who are trying to save the lives of people who are involved. Has anyone ever asked them how they are affected, or ever done a story about the lives that they have saved? If they have, I've never seen or read it. They unfortunately are very rarely recognized for the service they provide for our community on a second to second basis. It is usually always the other responders that get most of the recognition, and Yes they do deserve it and I am very grateful for all of our area responders but , they are each there own special group and deserve EQUAL recognition for there services.