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'He just never came back': First responders commit to serve their community, but the job can take a psychological toll
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All Matthew Jones wanted to be growing up was a firefighter, but a drowning call left him psychologically scarred and eventually a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. - photo by Brian Paglia

THE WEIGHT OF RESPONDING

This multi-part Forsyth County News series will examine how post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, affects local first responders, to tell their stories and see how they cope with a problem that’s just now being truly uncovered.

This week, the FCN looks at what PSTD is through the experience of one former Forsyth County firefighter. 

Next week, the FCN will examine how the county’s law enforcement and fire departments debrief their personnel after traumatic experiences on the job. 

For the longest time, all Matthew Jones wanted out of life was to be a firefighter.

From a young age, Jones was inspired by the men of his family to help, serve and protect others. His grandfather was a firefighter. His dad was a medic in the Vietnam War.

“As a kid, most want to be a policeman, astronaut or fireman. I only wanted to be a firefighter, the others meant nothing to me,” Jones said. “The big red trucks, the sirens, the way they helped anyone in need, knowing my grandfather was one and what he meant to me.”

 As Jones grew older, that need to help grew stronger and stronger.

“The feeling was always there,” he said. “But it never seemed to pan out.”

In the early 2000s, Jones found himself in Colorado, volunteering with the last volunteer fire department in Denver. He was married with two kids, working in the emergency room in Denver as a certified EMT and trying to find his way into a firefighter job.

“But the job market there to be a firefighter, it used to be kind of a well-kept secret, now everyone wants to do it,” Jones said. “So it became that the guys with college degrees were getting hired before the guys who actually wanted it.”

Jones had about 10 interviews while in Denver, many times alongside thousands of other firefighters competing for one position.

When Jones and his family decided to leave the west coast in 2003 and returned to Georgia to be closer to Jones’ mom, Sharon, they settled just down the street from Cherokee County Volunteer Station 3.

“I went straight there and immediately got on with them, started the training program with them. I went to the fire academy through them ... for a while, it looked like it wasn’t going to happen so I was just happy being a volunteer,” Jones said.

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A Forsyth County firefighter surveys the damage in the aftermath of a structure fire. - photo by Ben Hendren

All the while, Jones constantly applied for permanent positions at departments north of Atlanta. The last application he sent out was to the Forsyth County Fire Department. By then, he had come to terms with the fact that if it didn’t happen then, it never would.  

But in the end, it did – Jones was hired in 2005 as the last guy in a set of 12 new recruits.

“I was just ... It finally happened, it finally happened and right when I was about to give up,” Jones said.

Jones went through rookie school, graduating top of his class. After graduation, he was assigned to B shift at Station 14 in south Forsyth, with three other guys.

“The four of us ended up being thick as thieves down there ... I felt like I belonged down there,” Jones said. “It didn’t matter to me, they could have sent me anywhere. They could have put me on garbage duty, whatever; I just wanted to be a fireman, that’s all.”

Jones went into the work with ambition. He completed certifications and certificate courses in a wide variety of areas including swift water rescue, hazardous materials operations and wildland firefighting.  

Station 14 was the hazmat station at the time, and they were regularly called out to incidents that dealt with hazardous chemicals or otherwise toxic situations. 

“I was trying to make myself invaluable,” he said. “We went to as many fires as we possibly could.”

In addition to regular firefighting duties, working hazmat or swift water rescue operations sometimes meant seeing the horrific things that happen to dead bodies when they are exposed to the elements or not discovered for a time.

Many of Jones’ peers didn’t bother with these certifications, he said, because they didn’t want the added duties and responsibilities that come with them.

“There are a lot of guys that are great firemen, but who wants to dive down to the bottom of a lake to pick up a dead body?” Jones said. “I stuffed all that stuff into the back of my head for the longest time, until the kid.”    

“There are a lot of guys that are great firemen, but who wants to dive down to the bottom of a lake to pick up a dead body?”
Matthew Jones

‘The only funeral of a victim I ever went to was that little kid’

When they got the call that a boy had drowned in a neighborhood pool, Jones said that they were in the engine on the way back to the station from another call. Jones was “riding seat” in the back.

“It was a drowning, that’s all we knew. I don’t even think we knew how old the kid was. I don’t even think I knew it was a kid,” Jones said. “I can’t remember how many calls we had to the lake already by then, but it was one of those summers where it seemed like someone was drowning every week.”

The day was hot, the pool was crowded, and by the time the engine and ambulance arrived, the boy, a 6-year-old, had been pulled from the pool and bystanders were performing CPR on him.

Because Jones was “riding seat” that day, one of his jobs was to go with the ambulance to the hospital to assist the EMT with CPR.

“I remember there being a ramp where they were coming down with him on the stretcher, and I just crawled straight in the back of the ambulance, slammed the doors and started doing CPR on him,” Jones said. “I worked on that kid in the back of the ambulance from the pool all the way to the hospital.”

For Jones, the father of two young boys, the incident confronted him with one of his biggest fears.

“My kids were about the same age at the time, and when I raised them, the biggest fear I had was them drowning,” Jones said.

According to Eric Warren, one of Jones’ old crewmates who was with him that day, despite how quickly the boy was pulled out of the pool, their response time and their proximity to the hospital, it wasn’t enough.

Warren said that all the firefighters, sheriff’s deputies and city police who responded to the call waited at the emergency room to see what was going to happen. After, he said the feeling of despair and futility was hard to get over.

“I have seen people stay in water longer and survive ... but it just blew my mind that a child as strong as he was didn’t make it,” Warren said.  “I just feel like we gave up as a unit ... I feel like we failed that child, and I can’t go back and fix that.”

“The only funeral of a victim I ever went to was that little kid,” Warren said.

‘Those experiences just don’t go away’

According to Seth Norrholm, a researcher with the Grady Trauma Project, what Jones and his teammates experienced during the drowning that day is what they classify as a “Criterion A” stressor — a “direct or indirect exposure to a life-threatening situation.”

Once called shell shock, battle fatigue, soldier's heart or other similar phrases because of its devastating effect on soldiers during conflicts, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, affects thousands of men and women every year, sometimes leading to depression, addiction and suicide.

According to professionals at Emory University, about 20 percent of the current generation of soldiers returning home from abroad will be diagnosed with PTSD. But each day thousands of men and women all over the world will run that same risk without seeing a battlefield, thrust into trauma as part of their service to help and save lives.

A research study published in 2011 by the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro suggested that 10 percent of rescue workers worldwide showed a prevalence of PTSD. That study, which looked at more than 20,000 individuals from 28 studies around the world, suggested that rescue workers in North America have a PTSD prevalence of about 11.8 percent. 

A Criterion A stressor can be the catalyst for PTSD, but simply being exposed does not guarantee a PTSD diagnosis.

“Some estimates say about 80 percent of people will experience a Criterion A stressor in their lifetime ... anywhere from three quarters to 80 percent of those people are going to get better over time,” Norrholm said. “Simply by the passage of time the event will become less significant in your life.”

Another researcher, Liza Zwiebach, the associate clinical director of the Emory Healthcare Veterans Program, said one way to think about PTSD is that it is a failing of the body’s natural recovery process, where the affected person doesn’t get better in time.

“When a traumatic event happens to anybody, to any one of us, we’re going to spend a little time right after it not feeling like and not acting like ourselves. That's to be expected, that’s natural,” Zwiebach said. “What happens with a person who goes on to develop PTSD is those experiences just don’t go away.”

Zwiebach said that in those that don't recover naturally, they see many different symptoms significant to PTSD including re-experiencing traumatic memories, avoidance of reminders and hyperarousal or hypervigilance to danger.

Both researchers agreed that if after a month following a traumatic event those symptoms are not mitigated a diagnosis of PTSD is possible.

“You’re going to start to see it seep into other areas of their life,” Norrholm said. “So you may notice that their mood is decreased, they’re not laughing or smiling as much as they used to ... They miss calls, they may miss work.”

Another of the firefighters that worked the drowning, former Lt. Kevin Wells of the Forsyth County Fire Department, said that after the call that day, that was exactly how it went with Jones.

“That was the one that kind of seemed like it was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Wells said. “I just remember it was the one call that he just never came back from.”

After they left the hospital, it was business as usual, no discussion, just answering more calls and on to the next situation. But both Warren and Jones said that they knew something was different and wrong about how the call felt. 

“I just didn’t feel right,” Jones said. “Going to work became really hard. Every time I crossed the Forsyth County line, I’d start shaking. I didn’t sleep when I was there, I was exhausted all the time.”

When the lack of sleep and stress began affecting his life at home, Jones said he turned to drinking to find some peace. 

Matt’s mom, Sharon Jones, said that no one in the family understood what was happening to him, until his wife searched his symptoms on the internet and the light went on that something was really wrong.

“I drank to sleep,” Matt Jones said. “Drink until you could fall asleep, that was the plan.”