Preparedness & Recovery

Report Lauded Response to Pulse First Responders’ PTSD, but Some Feel Left Behind

Police and fire departments across the country have struggled with how to support first responders after mass violence.

by Gal Tziperman Lotan, Orlando Sentinel / December 29, 2017
Pulse nightclub owner Barbara Poma tends to the memorial in front of her club on June 10, 2017, in Orlando, Fla. Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/TNS

(TNS) - After 49 people were killed at Pulse nightclub last year, Orlando Police Chief John Mina said he knew he had to make sure his officers were taking care of their mental health.

“I reached out to many, many leaders across the country — including Chief Dan Oates, the former chief in Aurora, Colo.; Chief (Michael) Kehoe in Newtown — to ask them how they dealt with this,” Mina said recently. “I got a lot of my advice from them as well as from my brother-in-law, who is a former Navy SEAL team commander, to ask them how we deal with this post-traumatic stress.

“What they all said was that everyone’s gonna have some sort of post-traumatic stress. The key is not to let it turn into a disorder,” Mina said.

Police and fire departments across the country have struggled with how to support first responders after mass violence. Incident reviews of the Pulse attack and other mass shootings also address the concern.

Although many departments have faced the same problems, there is not yet an established protocol for how to deal with post-traumatic stress. Researchers say every case is different, and every officer will require a different sort of care.

And some first responders to the Pulse attack say their PTSD diagnoses haven’t been handled well.

Former Orlando Police Officer Gerry Realin sued the department earlier this month, claiming other officers harassed him after his PTSD diagnosis. He was on a team of officers who took the bodies out of the club.

Department officials offered Realin a desk job at Orlando City Hall, but Realin said the attack left him permanently disabled. He was granted his full retirement pension this summer — 80 percent of his salary for the rest of his life.

An Orlando Fire Department paramedic, Josh Granada, said he did not receive proper treatment for his PTSD after the attack. He was fired after surreptitiously recording Orlando City Commissioner Regina Hill during a medical call in August. He shared the audio with co-workers who did not respond to the call, violating medical privacy laws, department officials said.

And Eatonville Police Cpl. Omar Delgado was among the first to run into the club the night of the attack and is being let go from his job Dec. 31 because of a PTSD diagnosis that he said left him unable to do police work. He said other officers did not understand injuries they could not see.

“Being inside there for 31/2, 4 hours, looking at the same thing without being able to escape, that’s what affected me the most,” he said.

The first treatment he went through was suggested by a friend, he said. Then his department sent him to a University of Central Florida program created for military veterans with PTSD, in which they re-live traumatic situations through virtual simulations but exert more control over their surroundings.

Delgado said the program did not help him. After 10 weeks, he decided to stop.

“When it got to the 10th week, it was like: OK, there is nothing else we can offer Omar,” Delgado said. He had to go back to work. “I knew I wasn’t ready, but what do I do?”

Delgado was assigned to desk work until early December, when the city told him his last day on the job would be Dec. 31.

A doctor found him unfit to return to duty, Delgado said. He is about six months short of 10 years of employment with the department, at which point his pension would become vested. The city decided earlier this month that he could receive 42 percent of his $38,500 salary, plus benefits, for life.

Officers in Aurora, Colo., where 12 people were killed in a movie theater, talked about guarding the bodies of those who died and hearing their cellphones ring as loved ones tried to reach them. Police in San Bernardino, Calif., where 14 people were killed, said they felt as if they were expected to get back to work right away.

“Cops are expected to be tough, resilient, and able to bounce back without much mental health treatment or professional attention,” researchers from The Police Foundation wrote in the critical incident review for the mass shooting in San Bernardino. “In fact, some of the officers and civilians advised the team that they struggled with the stigma of asking for help and appearing weak to their colleagues.”

After the San Bernardino attack, researchers recommended making first-responder welfare part of training exercises. They also recommended appointing an officer as the wellness incident commander to help coordinate services, something Orlando police did after the Pulse attack.

“I think that’s extremely important,” Mina said after the report was released. “I know that within hours after the incident ending, that was one of our greatest concerns, was the mental health of our officers.”

In Orlando, first responders gathered at a high school on June 14, 2016 — two days after the Pulse shooting — and got an overview of how to manage post-traumatic stress and were debriefed in smaller groups.

“Organizational leadership should ensure that all involved in the response feel valued and are provided access to the physical and mental health resources they may need,” researchers wrote in the Department of Justice review.

Any officer who entered the club or fired at the gunman was required to go through counseling, Mina said. The department held debriefing sessions immediately after the attack, as well as six months and one year afterward. Officers can still seek counseling, Mina said.

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©2017 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)

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