First Responder Project helps EMS providers, FFs, law enforcement cope with work's effects
The Florida nonprofit supports the psychological and emotional needs of first responders and their families
The St. Augustine Record
ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. — As a first responder, Chris Pacetti sees difficult situations on a regular basis ― but some calls have lasting effects, he said.
He's been with the St. Augustine Fire Department for about 13 years and is now the operations chief. His career has taken him to the scene of many incidents of human trauma, some involving death.
"I went to a couple of bad calls that involved some good friends ... and opened up some stuff mentally to have to deal with. ... just kind of compounded a lot of the calls, I guess, that we had responded to before," he said.
Pacetti, 40, said he has dealt with lack of sleep as the memories replay in his head.
"It's like you're not safe in your own mind when you're going through it. You can't have any quiet time in your mind," he said.
Sitting at the fire department in downtown St. Augustine, Pacetti said he has only recently begun talking about the impacts his work has had on him. He started to open up around the time he joined an effort to raise funds for and promote the First Responder Project, a nonprofit focused on supporting "the psychological and emotional needs" of first responders ― that includes law enforcement officers and paramedics, among other roles. Pacetti participated in The Daytona 100 marathon to raise funds for the nonprofit.
The nonprofit, which was established in January 2020, is based in Northeast Florida ― the two founders live in Orange Park and St. Augustine. The organization primarily serves Northeast Florida and South Georgia.
According to the nonprofit's website, "The first responder project was founded by veterans and active/retired first responders to offer care and camaraderie for society's defenders, protectors and healers. ... The emotional, physical and psychological wear-and-tear of our jobs is inevitable and sometimes brutal. Many of us don't even have time to digest the impact of our experiences. We have to reconcile how our work and personal lives can co-exist, especially when exposure to incidents challenge our view of humanity."
The nonprofit provides free services for first responders and their families, such as peer support, virtual family forums and retreats, according to nonprofit co-founder Tracy Hejmanowski, a psychologist with a doctorate in psychology.
The organization also provides training for first responder agencies and others "who want to understand the effects of cumulative trauma exposure on first responders and their families," according to the nonprofit. More details are at firstresponderproject.org.
Separate from the First Responder Project, Hejmanowski works part time as an embedded behavioral health provider with the St. Johns County Sheriff's Office.
The nonprofit is run by volunteers with backgrounds as first responders or military veterans. That helps because the nonprofit officials can relate to what firefighters and paramedics go through, Pacetti said.
" The First Responder Project is just a group of people that have been there," he said.
Both Pacetti and Hejmanowski said some first responders still feel uncomfortable getting help for the mental and emotional impacts of their jobs. But it's a natural human need to talk about things, Hejmanowski said.
"You do a phenomenal job every time you go out. You know, and these things revisit you. They bother you, and that's because you're a human being. ... You can't pretend (you're) not absorbing it," she said.
While first responders are provided equipment to protect their bodies, "there hasn't been a lot of resiliency building for heart and soul and mind," Hejmanowski said.
The main mission of the nonprofit is to provide retreats, which provide an opportunity for "rest and recalibration," she said. The organization would like to raise enough money to hire two people part time.
Right now, the nonprofit is supported by about 20 volunteers.
"People are just giving of their time, which is what we love because we're building a community, building a family of people who are invested and who are willing to put their heart on their sleeve because a lot of people are still in the shadows," Hejmanowski said.
(c)2021 The St. Augustine Record, Fla.