As a 19 year old working in a sporting goods store, Scott Null already knew one thing – he had a protective streak that drove him to stand between innocents and bullies. He had experience standing up to bullies in school, and was intrigued by law enforcement.
“I knew several police officers and after speaking to them, felt like it would be a career I wanted to pursue,” says Scott. “There was not anyone in my family who was in law enforcement, but I felt drawn to becoming a police officer.”
Our first responders run into emergencies, environmental disasters, terrorist attacks and many other tragic events that require their expertise. They are trained to override their flight mechanism, the normal mechanism the brain would engage in a trauma, making their need to be on-guard constantly. This can often result in post-traumatic stress or other health concerns.
We recently spoke with the Null family – Camille, Director of Volunteer Programs for Heroes on the Water, and her husband, Scott, a retired Houston homicide detective who served for over two decades, to talk about the ways that first responders’ line of work impacts their health and family life.
The Blue Line
Scott Null served in the Houston Police Department for 22 years. While he had no previous ties to police work before joining the academy, he says that helping people just felt right.
“Being the one standing between civilians and the bad guys and knowing that other people are able to go home and sleep at night because they’re safe is what matters to me,” says Scott, “Even in school if I saw someone getting picked on, I was the one standing between them and the bully. I’ve just always had that protective instinct. It’s about right and wrong for me.”
Scott’s career began in a typical fashion – on patrol for nine years. However, unlike others who spent their entire career and never had to pull their gun, Scott’s experience was much different.
“My patrol was in some of the roughest areas of Houston. I had to pull my gun almost every night,” says Scott. “I look back now and wonder what was I thinking, volunteering for the busiest beats.”
In his 22 year career, Scott rotated through street level narcotics and vice before landing in the homicide division, first in sex crimes. He would volunteer to be first through the door during a dynamic entry or to serve a warrant.
“I trusted my training, and felt confident that my team was prepared,” says Scott.
First responders rely heavily on their training, and their team. Experiencing traumatic events day after day is just part of the job. Unfortunately, it takes a toll, often one that is unrecognized.
“You’re working in a career that you’re planning on having for 20-25 years. If in year 3 you have an issue, you don’t really want to put a spotlight on your issues because that will follow you for the rest of your career.” Scott says, “It shouldn’t be that way, there shouldn’t be a stigma, but I don’t know how you could fix it. It becomes everyone’s business because it’s a safety factor.
The Butcher Knife
During one of his calls, Scott was attacked by a man with a butcher knife. At the time, his training prevailed, the attacker was neutralized, and Scott was able to walk away. Unfortunately, he had to use deadly force in order to live. Today, he remembers the after-effects through a different lens.
“I would catch myself noticing large butcher knives on other calls. You are always looking for any possible weapons, but those bothered me on a different level for a long time. Even though the knife would have nothing to do with the scene or incident, I would place myself between the person and the knife. If I saw someone holding one, I would instantly go on full alert, even when it wasn’t in a threatening situation,” says Scott. “Sometimes just seeing Camille using a butcher knife in our own kitchen would cause me to momentarily go right back to the shooting. This went on for quite a while.”
First responders can struggle with cumulative post-traumatic stress. Different than combat related PTS, it is the consistent rigors and events of the job, day after day, that build up. Police officers have the highest rate of cumulative PTS, which is also the hardest to diagnose primarily due to the fact that the symptoms build over time, and can go unrecognized.
Scott’s traumatic experiences led him to be on edge and constantly vigilant when he was out in public places, making average family vacation destinations or outings difficult.
Scott says, “I remember bits and pieces of the larger family trips like Disney or an Astro’s game or even just the mall for school shopping, but the entire time I’m in a place like that I’m on red.”
He recalls a time taking one of their two daughters school shopping and bumping into a man who he’d arrested previously.
“As soon as I saw him walking, I was thinking about where I was going to send my daughter for safety and how I was going to handle the situation.”
Luckily, they simply locked eyes and the man gave Scott a nod of assurance that nothing would happen. Moments like that are what Scott and first responders across the nation deal with daily.
While Scott didn’t know it at the time, he too was experiencing strong symptoms of post-traumatic stress.
Throughout his service, Scott says he saw the ways that traumatic events combined with a constant need to remain vigilant impacted colleagues. Sometimes these people would at times turn to substance or alcohol abuse to help them cope.
“I was always very conscious of watching the other guys who were not handling it well. They would blow up on a simple disturbance call when it wasn’t necessary,” Scott says, “I was aware of the stress, I was aware of a lot of the guys using alcohol as a crutch and I decided I didn’t want to go that route. The outdoor activities were what helped me. I would take off and go hang out by myself outdoors.”
The prolonged trauma of hypervigilance can lead to an increase in symptoms like panic attacks and anxiety, struggling to regulate emotions, isolation, depression, insomnia, nightmares, flashbacks and more. Scott and Camille both agree that Scott’s passion for the outdoors is what helped him cope with the constant stress of his career.
Recalling a specifically horrific case Scott investigated, Camille says, “When the case ended, he went on a kayaking trip and slept on his boat for two days. When he came back, he apologized to me and the girls. The kayaking trip helped him regulate his emotions for each of the cases he had to work on. There were residual effects, but whatever mental work he did while he was down there helped him cope and process his feelings.”
At HOW, we recognize that getting our first responders out on the water increases feelings of peace and decreases stress. It also improves interpersonal relationships with family and friends. They can rebuild or build new bonds that may have been impacted by severe stress or other matters.
“Seeing a first responder on the water and getting to enjoy time with them is wonderful for the family. It’s good for everyone to see and feel the effects.” Camille says, “For many years our family vacations revolved around kayaking because it’s where we were all comfortable. When we’re out on the water, Scott’s calm, he’s dad. He’s not work-mode dad; he’s the dad my daughters know and love.”
It’s no secret that spending time outdoors, especially on or even near the water, has immense health benefits. Studies show that spending time in nature can reduce stress, anxiety and depression and improve cardiovascular health and mental wellness. For first responders who need an alternative wellness program, events and experiences like the fishing and kayaking excursions HOW provides can be life-altering.
Both Camille and Scott agree that there is a disparity in the opportunities for mental health treatment offered to first responders in comparison with resources available for veterans. In a field where safety is at the forefront of everyone’s mind, many first responders are often hesitant to express that they are experiencing any symptoms if they are even aware that it’s happening in the first place. The Nulls would love to see more resources like HOW provided to first responders across the nation as they’ve witnessed the incredible impact firsthand.
“I do strongly feel that for first responders to be included in HOW’s events is great for both veterans and first responders because of the mutual respect,” says Camille. “I’d like us to become part of a police or fire department’s wellness plan similar to what we’re doing with the therapeutic program for veterans.”
Scott agrees that the civilian support aspect of HOW would be great for first responders, especially police officers.
“95% of people are supportive of law enforcement. What happens is that some law enforcement officers start thinking that that 5% is everybody and then cops are only friends with cops, they don’t want to hang out with anyone else.” Scott says, “Knowing that the majority of people out there are behind you, it makes you feel good. If you think everyone is against you, you’re automatically on defense.”
Scott recognizes that Heroes on the Water’s program provides a much needed respite for our first responders.
“I was happy to be a part of the first HOW events. It naturally flowed with veterans,” says Scott. “Kayak fishing requires a focus that takes your mind away from the stresses of the job. Releasing that stress and spending time outdoors works if you let it. The experience will be positive.”
National First Responders Day is October 28th, while during the month of October we honor the sacrifices made by police officers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians and all those who are the first to arrive on the scene of an emergency.
At Heroes on the Water, we are committed to providing wellness services to our first responders. We introduce participants to the calming effects of being out on the water and provide tools through teaching that can be used to help cope with trauma, stress and other injuries. Your support is crucial in continuing these services. Please consider a gift to show your support of our First Responder community.