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BOULDER, Colo. (KDVR) — There are lots of people hurting after the mass-shooting tragedy, including the first responders who rushed to the scene.

Many are back out on the streets serving the community right now, but experts are urging them to take care of themselves.

The situations first responders face are difficult and stressful, and the effects can be long term. Retired Aurora Command Officer Mike Dailey knows first-hand. He was on scene at the Century 16 theater shooting in 2012.

Dailey said, “They become victims too. The first responders become victims just like the folks in the store. It’s sad, but they are willing to take that on because of the love and dedication to the communities they serve.”

He added, “We were fortunate enough to have psychiatric services contracted through the city. So they were very good about coming in and talking to the officers involved, checking in with the officers involved. Our own officers kind of kept track of each other. If they felt someone was having difficulty, they would approach them and recommend they use the services and resources.”

Over the years, peer support programs have become more common in agencies. Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office started its peer support program more than 20 years ago.

“Part of growing the peer support has been the awareness of the need to take care of ourselves mentally, physically, spiritually and socially; So those are the four pillars we use as a basis to make sure we are taking care of folks,” Commander David Swavely said. “I was at Columbine many years ago. It was different than it is now. We use it much more than in the past. We make regular contact with people. Our sheriff likes to say, ‘It’s a friend helping a friend.’ Here at the sheriff’s office, is basically what it is.”

The volunteers go through a 40-hour peer support training program. They cover topics like recognizing signs of grief, stress, and referrals — who to make referrals to, when to make referrals. They have sworn deputies who are peer supporters, as well as civilian staff who are peer supporters. 

Jefferson County sent at least 17 deputies to the scene in Boulder on Monday. Swavely said, “Today and tomorrow, our peer support people are going to be reaching out to all the people we’ve identified so far just to do a quick check in with them, make sure they are doing ok.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends these self-care techniques:

  • Limit working hours to no longer than 12-hour shifts.
  • Work in teams.
  • Write in a journal.
  • Talk to family, friends, supervisors and teammates.
  • Practice breathing and relaxation techniques.
  • Maintain a healthy diet and get adequate sleep and exercise.
  • Know that it is okay to draw boundaries and say “no.”
  • Avoid or limit caffeine and use of alcohol.

“The truth is, we deal with the worst of the worst, or sometimes at least people who are having their worst day. That takes a toll, especially over time, over a career. There’s a lot of trauma that gets filed away in the back of your brain and sometimes in your heart. We have to take care of those things,” Swavely said. “It is absolutely critical that they talk and sometimes that talk is all that’s needed to get it off your chest.”

“We know verbalizing things is sometimes a stress reliever but also there may be something that needs a referral,” Swavely added. “You might need continuing care through a mental professional, or you might just need a buddy you can talk about it again or encourage to go hit the gym or other resources that can help you out.”

Dailey says the impact of responding to a traumatic event can be long lasting. He said, “Many of them will go home and hug their families, and they’re going to have nightmares for a year. We were told from the start [that] between 3 to 5 years after the event, we could still see some reaction to the event and people would not get back to normal for some time.”

“I know an FBI statistic has it up to eight years after an event,” Dailey added. “It takes the officers and paramedics that long to get back to a sense of normal. Not just to get past the event, but recognize it, and be able to move on with their lives.”

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