Y'all, this book is it! Not only is it short and sweet (more of a booklet than a book), but it hits every major point for those of us in the first responder life. Whether you are law enforcement, firefighter, paramedic/EMS, military, dispatch, or any other part of the responder culture, this author will change your life. I can guarantee it.
My dad, a retired police officer, gave this book to me while my husband was going through the police academy. I'll be honest, I only skimmed it then. I was in the middle of grad school, had a one year old, was working full-time to put my husband through the academy. No way did I have time to really read this book. But what a mistake I made not prioritizing this book! Looking back, it really could have helped my partner and I through most of the struggles that lead to heated fights and hurtful words.
We actually got this book recommended again by the chief at my husband's department, and again we dismissed it. I'd already skimmed it and given my partner the summary of my skimming. Besides, I'm a professional, we got this. Right? Oh, so very wrong!
During my training to become a Certified First Responder Counselor, I had to thoroughly read the book because there would be questions on the exam. Y'all, this changed how we approach our personal life for us as a couple and for my partner in his relationships with others.
Full disclosure, this book is directed specifically towards law enforcement (hence the title). Dr. Gilmartin references the police culture specifically because of his education in police psychology and his experience working in law enforcement at the Pima County Sheriff's Office in Arizona. However, almost the entire book can be applicable to any other role in the first responder culture.
In the beginning, Dr. Gilmartin addresses the lack of support and training for first responders in how to manage the effects of the job on their personal life. For my partner and I, I remember in his academy training they had a small video for the cadets to share with their significant others. I made it about 25 seconds into the 5 minute video before throwing the phone and screaming in terror. The audio was an inspirational speech for police officers, and on its own the speech really is an incredible tribute to the calling. But the video itself was a compilation of police assassinations, actual footage of many officers being killed in the line of duty in the most simple of situations, completely unexpected, like at a traffic stop or unlocking the door in a jail cell. I don't know what idiot thought a video montage of different officers being murdered was appropriate for RECRUITS to show their significant others during the ACADEMY phase. That was legitimately the only training the academy gave my partner regarding the way the job effects your personal life. Pardon my language, but are you fucking kidding me? THAT'S IT????
As a therapist, in grad school I had an entire class on self-care and addressing issues of burn-out. And my job is no where near as stressful as a responder's career! I felt that Dr. Gilmartin truly acknowledged my concern with the way departments do not prioritize the personal wellbeing of their officers. He calls out departments and the responder culture in their failure of caring for the officers.
This book also addresses the basic effects of a highly stressful job on a person's wellbeing. Dr. Gilmartin focuses on one of the most significant aspects of the first responder mindset that can be considered the core of all the negative effects of the job: hypervigilance.
Hypervigilance is "the necessary manner of viewing the world from a threat-based perspective, having the mindset to see the events unfolding as potentially hazardous" (Gilmartin, p.35). Hypervigilance is essential to the survival of first responders. As evidenced by the video from my partner's academy video, any simple call could turn life-threatening if the subject decides he doesn't want to comply and pulls a gun on the officer. In order to go home at the end of the day, to ensure lives are saved, this tool keeps officers on their feet, utilizing officer safety tactics, it all helps an officer do his job safely and effectively. An officer who does not become hypervigilant on the job is a danger to himself and others.
The same is true for firefighters, EMTs, dispatchers, and other emergency response personnel. Firefighters need to read all of the potential negative outcomes not just when running into a burning building, but also when going to a trapped elevator or a chemical spill. If an paramedic doesn't consider death as an outcome when responding to a car accident, they can miss the signs of concussion or internal bleeding in a patient. All first responders need to work at this heightened level of awareness in order to be good at their job.
Dr. Gilmartin expertly describes the biological effects of being hypervigilant, and the repercussions of such a biological imbalance. So many responders talk about these effects without even realizing it. "The job gets your blood going!" or "It's just part of the job". An important take-away in this book is the need for officers to regain biological balance on a physical level, not just a mental level, in order to be able to function outside of the shift. Without this balance, responders will often become angry or detached when around the people they love.
And overtime, this imbalance can change the soul of a person. This can be recognized when a responder no longer expresses joy or interest in the activities or family that mean so much to them. If they loved to play softball, and one day decide they don't have the energy, when nothing else in their lives have changed, it could be the biological imbalance of hypervigilance. If they used to have fun playing boardgames with their children, but now they become aggressive, short-tempered, and easily irritated when playing, it could be the biological imbalance of hypervigilance. There are always many factors to consider, such as moving in/getting married to a significant other, having children, filing bankruptcy, getting divorce, losing a parent or loved one, so many factors can impact a person's heart and soul. But if there is no significant change in their circumstances, and they still have a significant change of heart, we need to consider how they are caring for their biological needs with the hypervigilance biological roller coaster.
So, how do we manage this biological complication? How can first responders overcome the barriers keeping them from living their best life when they take off the uniform?
First, we need department management to change, and Dr. Gilmartin calls it like he sees it. Responders need chiefs, directors, managers who encourage and promote the mental well-being of their responders. LEOs have recently seen a big push in this direction, with the increase in on-duty deaths and suicides, as well as the increased media attention on the actions of officers. But what about our dispatchers, who are on the phone managing a life-threatening call as a calm presence, multi-tasking to get officers and paramedics to the scene as fast as possible, AND trying to not let the terrified voice get to them after work? What about our firefighters, who go for weeks during fire season without seeing their family, and losing several brothers and sisters to the forest fires on the other side of the state?
We have this big push for mental health and services to those in need in our society. How is it that the people who are putting themselves into the most physically and mentally straining careers in our society are being missed? I took two classes in grad school on cultural competency, and not one of them discussed the culture of first responders, or military for that matter. We need more education in the mental health field to become better providers for those who serve, for our responders.
What about you at home? What can you do as a responder to better manage the biological turmoil your body and mind are going through because of the job? As the partner or loved one of a responder, how can you support and encourage your responder to engage in healthy self-care techniques?
One thing you can do is buy Dr. Gilmartin's book. Yes, I am going to be THAT blogger. I'm not going to give you all of his secrets and work for free. Besides, I could never do the book justice. Go on Amazon, search for "Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement", add to cart, and check-out. If you are a responder or a family member, you need this book, not a blog about the book.
Another thing you can do is go to therapy or find a counselor who is culturally competent as a clinician. And I don't mean someone who read Dr. Gilmartin's book. If you go to https://www.firstrespondercounselor.com/cfrc-directory?cid=bc831d07-5db0-4674-812d-6a2c79e4512e, find a counselor near you who has the extra training necessary to truly understand the lifestyle of a first responder. This training included listening to responders share their own stories, watching videos, dash cams, body cams of different high risk scenarios that first responders face regularly (and some not so regularly). The training also brings to light the lingo of responders, the different coping strategies (both healthy and unhealthy) that are common for first responders, including the dark and "politically-incorrect" humor that keeps responders from crossing the line into madness. Find someone who will get you, get your lifestyle, and not judge you for being part of a not-so-common culture in our society.
You have got to read this book! Read it, and watch your life change. Simply being informed and aware of the situations you are going through can create profound change in how you approach your behaviors and emotions. But I challenge you to take it one step further, and actually implement the suggestions from Dr. Gilmartin, do the work, to make your life as a responder fulfilling again.
Take care, friends!
You can purchase the book on Amazon here.
Disclosure: I do receive a small payment when you are purchasing the book through the link above.