To Save or To Be Saved - Kristen Wong
00:00 / 00:00

Firefighters and paramedics are called on every day and are expected to respond and assist without hesitation, even if it means having to put themselves in harm’s way. Aside from fighting fires or saving lives, these workers have an extremely grueling profession that some may forget leaves an emotional mark rather than just a physical one.


“We do have a lot of tragic cases that can happen, and do happen,” said Shayne Enright,

the Honolulu Emergency Medical Services spokeswoman. “Unfortunately, it does

come with the position and territory of working in the Emergency Medical

Services as first responders.”


Those in the EMS understand that this is still a job, and they have chosen a career

that entails frequent exposure to tragedies. No matter what the assignment may be

or who it may involve, they are required to put their emotions and fears aside to get

the job done.


“The way I see it, you just have to suck it up,” said Joe Tomaszek, a local police officer here on O’ahu. “Most of the guys just deal with it on their own time, drink with their buddies. You know, my thing is that if we’re having to deal with other people’s problems every day, and we can handle that, then why can’t I handle my own?”


Tomaszek recalls having to deal with some tragic cases, one of which involved the homicide of a 3-year-old girl. “She ended up dying on me,” he said. “And it really, profoundly affected me. It took me about a week to deal with it all.”

OUT OF 1,000


In the profession, there has been a growing recognition of post-traumatic stress disorder, alcoholism and even suicide, according to a study done by the Journal of Emergency Medical Services in 2015.


The study researched the prevalence and severity of EMS provider stress in the workplace and surveyed 1,000 firefighters. Results found that nearly half of them have had suicidal thoughts at some point in their career and that one in five experienced Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, which is double the rate of the general population.


In 2016, the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance confirmed that 99 firefighters and 36 EMS workers committed suicide.




While many states and counties have mental support for their workers, it isn't a requirement. It's available to them on a need-to-need basis. However, many of them are unable to discuss the emotional trauma from fear of being “too fragile” for the workplace, a workplace that requires you to be mentally resilient and tough.


“We have peer support, but honestly I’ve never used it. I don’t think much people have," said Tomaszek. It’s just not a job where you feel like you can go and cry to someone about (it). You just deal with it on your own time."


According to a study done by researchers Lainie Rutkow, Lance Gable and Jonathan M. Links, many states and localities have enacted legal protections relevant to the mental health of first responders such as workers compensation and mandatory mental health screenings. They concluded that permanent legal solutions like these are necessary to ensure that first responders can access mental health services before, during and after emergencies without having ethical concerns involving judgment, stigma or equity in the work place.


For our local professionals, there are no future

plans to implement something similar here in Hawai’i.



Enright said that while they are aware of the toll that the

job might have on the body, EMS workers are provided with

support if needed. “We have something called debriefing, which

usually happens after heavy calls. It’s where a supervisor will meet

with the team, talk to them about it and follow-up with how everyone is doing.”

Though there haven't been any documented cases of suicides among our Hawai'i first responders, it's definitely not an issue that we should ignore.

"There's a saying around here," said Tomaszek. "It's that when policemen retire, they don't live very long after that. All the things that these guys ended up having to deal with, the stress, the fatalities, once they leave, the body just gives up."

"We have peer support, but honestly I've never used it..."

Written ByKristen Wong

Published: Dec. 13, 2017