My name is Ed Naggiar and I am a proud resident of Bay County, Florida. I am a retired Navy SEAL Officer with a PhD in Industrial Organizational Psychology and I have have the privilege of being the lead resilience trainer for Bay County First Responders, specifically Bay County Sheriff’s Office (BCSO). Resilience is what we use to describe the “bounce back” that one feels when confronted with a stressful situation. Needless to say, these brave men and women risk their lives daily for all of the residents of Bay County, whether these residents are permanent or visiting.
As everyone knows, Spring Break brings thousands of visitors to our County. Some of these visitors are families or college students looking for some relaxation and fun. However, over the past few years, Spring Break in Panama City has attracted a much more different crowd. A crowd that concentrates on crime, alcohol, drugs, stabbing, and even shooting as its primary source of entertainment. Because of the added influx of these individuals and the actions that they undertake, 911 calls increase by almost 100% over the Spring Break period and the resulting crime skyrockets! The resulting stress caused by these events can be overwhelming. And a hormone secreted during the stress reaction is responsible for the hidden damage experienced by our First Responders.
The stress reaction produces a hormone called cortisol. This hormone is secreted by the adrenal cortex (the outer part of the adrenal glands on top of your kidneys) and in the short run, stimulates your ability to survive during a life threatening event, like pulling over a suspect that has an AK-47 in the back of his car (this actually happened when I was on shift with the BCSO). Cortisol does this by giving you the energy boost that you need to fight or run away; the standard fight or flight response we all learned in school. But here is the rub. If left to run wild, too much cortisol can have devastating effects. There are many negative effects, such as weight gain, alcoholism, sleep disorders, immune system suppression, cancer, heart disease and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, just to name a few. So what can we do about this? Is this just another one of those things we chalk up as, “Hey, they volunteered for it and it is part of their job?” When a soldier goes into combat, that soldier must undergo training. Stress training and how to deal with the negative effects of the uncontrollable should be an integral part of what we provide our First Responders. Unfortunately, we do not budget this type of training. So we let our First Responders go into pure chaos without the proper psychological training and wonder why they end up turning to food, alcohol, or worse, to cope with the stress.
The night I went out with BCSO was pure chaos. The pure insanity that I saw happening on the beach on my ride along could definitely be characterized as a war zone. There were two shootings and one stabbing that night, and none of them were related to each other. While we were responding to a shooting at the Holiday Inn, a gentleman walked out with a stab wound and was almost run down by our responding vehicles. After exiting the vehicle and observing the chaos, I realized that this was a combined, continuous effort from Fire Fighters, Sheriff’s Deputies, Panama City Beach Police Officers, and even Florida Highway Patrolmen. And this rodeo had no signs of ending anytime soon. As a scientist and former operator myself, I could only imagine how much cortisol was flowing through all the bodies of those brave men and women that night, and how much future damage was being caused to all of the husbands, fathers, mothers, and wives out there that night.
The stresses of Spring Break are real. They affect our First Responders in ways that I believe go unnoticed and untrained. When I walk through the offices of BCSO now, I see a different atmosphere than before Spring Break. I see men and women who are tired and depressed, both mentally and physically. From a scientific perspective, Spring Break elevates cortisol levels (and keeps them elevated) for far too long. Something needs to be done. Spring Break definitely has a monetary cost, but the hidden health costs to our First Responders is simply put, not right.
Ed R. Naggiar, PhD and retired U.S. Navy SEAL Officer