SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – Police officers and firefighters often see some of the worst life has to offer – witnessing someone burned in a fire, killed in a car crash, or caught in the middle of a deadly shooting. For most first responders, these traumatic events can be hard to forget.
“I think every fighter can point to a handful of calls that really stick with them for their entire career,” said Salt Lake City Fire Department Public Information Office Capt. Shaun Mumedy.
“I can think of dozens of calls, dozens of calls,” added Ogden Police Officer Robert Evans.
Evans said he still vividly remembers the day his partner Jack Elmer was hit and killed by a drunk driver nearly 35 years ago.
“I can feel his broken neck in the palm of my hand… I got home and I still had his blood on my face, I didn’t want to wash it off, because it was him. That’s one,” said Evans.
That emotional toll is more prevalent than you’d think. Therapist Kent Allen, who exclusively treats trauma in first responders, said the average police officer sees seven of these critical incidents a week. For firefighters, it climbs to 20 or 22 in a two- or three-day shift.
“I had a police officer just a little while ago, and he came in and I think his appointment was at 11 a.m., and I come in and I say first thing, ‘How’s your day been?'” said Allen. “And he says ‘Well, I stood over three dead bodies today. So far how does that sound?'”
If not addressed, Allen said over the course of a responder’s career the stress from those traumatic calls quickly adds up. He said responders rarely get time to recoup and lower their anxiety. On top of that, responders have to deal with the stigma attached to officers who talk about it.
“Everybody knew you were going to have calls that bothered you, but if you let it out, you were perceived to be weak,” said Evans.
Before Evans sought help, he said the unresolved traumas led to severe depression and survivor’s guilt.
“I think I was a good guy, but nobody knew how dark of a place I was working from… to try and be a good guy,” he said.
Mumedy said for him, it contributed to lack of sleep and low testosterone, causing him to walk around “as a depressed zombie.”
The president of Utah’s Fraternal Order of Police (UFOP) said he also had sleepless nights, and it nearly cost him his marriage before he reached out for help.
“I was about to be another statistic of a single dad probably living in a trailer or whatever my wife would let me keep in the divorce,” said UFOP President Brent Jex.
The most serious consequence is suicide. According to ABC News, in 2019, 228 police officers took their own lives — a new record in the U.S. It’s something those among Utah’s top police leadership know needs significant attention.
“If you take a look at our budget this past year for Unified Police Dept. our top priority was officer wellness,” said Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera.
To get responders the wellness they need, those ABC4 News talked to inside the industry said there’s work to do.