How police, fire departments help first responders cope in the wake of tragedies

  Fox River Grove Fire Chief Robert Kreher was among the first on the scene of the fatal 1995 bus/train crash that killed seven high school students in Fox River Grove. Time helps heal, he says, but firefighter/paramedics never forget the experience. Brian Hill/
  A memorial to the seven Cary-Grove High school students killed in the 1995 bus/train crash remains near the accident site at Algonquin Road and Route 14 in Fox River Grove. Brian Hill/

While some people turn to faith to cope with tragedy, for others, including some first responders, faith may not be enough to sustain them in the wake of trauma.

That’s where police and fire departments are stepping in to help.

After the murders of three members of the Engelhardt family in 2009, Hoffman Estates police offered support to officers and others who responded to the scene and investigated the crime. It was a kind of support less common then than it is today.

In the wake of such events, everyone from dispatchers and patrol officers, to detectives and evidence technicians participates in a group debriefing, said Hoffman Estates Police Chief Kasia Cawley.

Cawley was among the detectives who investigated the triple homicide that claimed the lives of Alan Engelhardt, his 18-year-old daughter Laura and his mother-in-law Marlene Gacek on April 17, 2009. Shelly Engelhardt, Alan’s wife and Laura’s mother, was seriously injured during the jealousy-fueled knife attack by their oldest daughter’s then-fiance. She has since recovered.

Debriefings and follow-up counseling is strictly confidential, said Cawley, whose department also provides employees with peer support and mentorship programs after a difficult calls.

Policing isn’t just a job, it’s a calling, Cawley said. That’s all the more reason for departments to support their officers.

“There are lots of avenues for people to reach out or find ways to cope,” she added.

Many police and fire departments look to organizations like the Northern Illinois Critical Incident Stress Management Team, whose specially trained volunteers meet with first responders within 12 hours of a traumatic incident to debrief, support and provide counseling referrals to anyone who requests it.

Lake County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Chief Christopher Covelli said police officers choose their careers out of a desire to serve and “know the risk they’re taking kissing their family goodbye every day and not knowing if they’ll come back.”

But responding to any sort of death or homicide scene, especially those involving children, has a tremendous impact, he added.

Few know that better than Fox River Grove Fire Chief Bob Kreher, who was among the first firefighter/paramedics responding to the fatal 1995 school bus/train crash that killed seven Cary-Grove High School students.

“There are a lot of days that are tougher than others. There are days when it hits you hard,” Kreher said.

“Even though time helps it heal, it’s always still there,” he added.

Kreher’s department held three debriefings for employees following the 1995 accident and would have scheduled more if firefighters had requested them. Today, many McHenry County fire departments have chaplains assigned to firehouses to assist employees.

“They’re around quite a bit,” Kreher said. “It helps a lot. They can tell if someone’s just not right” dealing with an incident’s aftereffects.

Covelli said law enforcement leaders recognize the need to take care of their own and address mental health needs in the aftermath of a traumatic event. The Lake County Sheriff’s Office began addressing the issue in 2018, when it started requiring a critical incident debrief for any employee whose worked a traumatic event, such as the 2022 parade shooting in Highland Park.

“We don’t force people to talk, but we encourage open communication and offer one-on-one counseling as well. In some cases we require it so we can ensure their needs are being met,” he said.

Covelli acknowledges that some deputies may have resisted counseling initially, believing it might negatively impact their careers. He doesn’t believe that’s the case now.

Members of Kreher’s department have nothing to fear, but he suspects firefighter/paramedics moving on to a larger department might worry potential employers might get that information.

“Some younger people might be afraid something might turn up to knock out their chance of getting hired somewhere else,” he said.

Katherine Johnson, a licensed clinical professional counselor from West Dundee, said the first responders she works with typically experience post-traumatic stress disorder with symptoms including anxiety, hyper-vigilance, flashbacks, nightmares and sleep disorders. Substance abuse and family conflict may also result, she said.

It’s important for supervisors to recognize such symptoms in their employees, she added.

“If they don’t know what to look for, they won’t know it when it’s in front of them,” said Johnson, who has worked with first responders for nine years.

It’s also important to normalize counseling for police and fire department professionals.

“You’re not weird if you’re struggling or if you need extra help,” she said.

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