“Those two are the reason I was able to get this thing done,” Landon Packard ’17 said of his faculty mentors, Joanna Gregson and Anna Leon-Guerrero. “I wouldn’t have been able to do it if they weren’t as forthcoming and helpful as they were.”
Amid the unthinkable on Feb. 5, 2012, the firefighter did his job.
Hours earlier, a man tangled up in a missing-person investigation and a child-custody battle blew up his home with his children inside. The homicide-suicide committed by Josh Powell remains one of the area’s most horrific crimes, forcing sleepy Graham, Washington, into the national spotlight.
Despite the emotional turmoil surrounding the devastation, that firefighter — himself a father of two sons — rose to the call of duty. He was tasked with removing the bodies of the two young boys, similar in age to his own, from the charred remains of the home.
“As we have all grown up in today’s society, we have all learned and been socialized to think that first responders are the ones who are supposed to rescue us when circumstances arise,” Landon Packard ’17 wrote in his research paper about the emotional labor experienced by first responders. “Yet, we haven’t been socialized to understand the guilt and heartbreak that comes with the job.”
That firefighter and 13 other interview subjects opened up to Packard about experiences that are often difficult for them to discuss, even with their loved ones. The collection of testimonials comprised the sociology capstone project that Packard says is personal.
“I have grown up around police officers and firefighters my whole life,” he said. “I wanted to relay stories, but mainly I wanted to relay them so people could grasp what these people go through every day because they don’t know how to show it.”
Packard examined each individual’s emotional labor — the process of managing emotions to satisfy the requirements of a job — by asking questions from four categories: background and demographics, becoming a first responder, emotions at work and emotion management.
“As we have all grown up in today’s society, we have all learned and been socialized to think that first responders are the ones who are supposed to rescue us when circumstances arise. Yet, we haven’t been socialized to understand the guilt and heartbreak that comes with the job.”
– Landon Packard ’17
“The interviews took place in a variety of places, from quiet living rooms to different coffee shops,” he wrote in his analysis. The interviews were between 35 and 60 minutes, depending on the comfort level of each participant. “Some participants were very upfront and willing to talk, whereas other participants were more reserved.”
Three themes were consistent across all interviews, Packard found. All of the subjects used gallows humor as a way of coping, all of them experienced deep sympathy when tragedy struck children and their families, and all of them experienced a culture of “learning as you go” to cope with emotional strain.
“First responders have other lives outside of work. I think people sometimes forget that,” Packard said. “When these people are home, they have other struggles they are dealing with. They have to carry their problems with them to work and take on others’ emotional struggles.”
The recent graduate said it was tough managing his own emotions through the process. Still, he said it helped him learn how to be a better interviewer, especially in the context of sociology research.
“When a person is in a vulnerable state, you learn how to just let them talk,” he said. “That was what I had to learn.”
First responders speak
“I had an uncle run over his 4-year- old nephew with a big cat. His nephew ran out to give him hot chocolate, didn’t see him, and backed right over him. We had to go get his mom. So that wasn’t very fun. I had a house fire when I had to carry out the bodies of a 14-year- old girl, her 12-year-old brother, and 9-year-old brother… They didn’t make it out of the house fire in time… They were all burned up, and yeah. Those two were probably the worst.”
“There is a nasty auto accident and someone is burning inside of it, that’s a pretty high stress situation. Or if you have to choose between someone burning in a car and someone who is pinned under another car, you have to make that difficult decision.”
“When you are fire fighting you start out young and you are dating it’s easier. But once you get married and have children, you go on calls when the age of the children are the same age as yours. So, that really brings it home. It’s hard.”
“We have teams that come in and counsel and talk to us about different things if we need it. But compartmentalizing is big. It didn’t happen to me and I need to move on. If you dwell on it too much, it will kill ya. Especially with suicides and deaths, you never really lose the face of that person. It is always with you.”
“There has been stuff that I’ve seen that I hope no one ever would have to see. Some pretty bad stuff. Kids dying, Overdoses are big right now. Heroin is killing people left and right.”
“The ones you lose sleep about are the ones when you think you could have done something different or better and you didn’t do it. Whether or not you could have or not, that’ll bug you more than losing someone and you know you couldn’t have done anything. Always second guessing yourself will keep you up at night… Like we took too long cutting him out of the car, and he ended up bleeding out. So maybe we could have cut a different way or we just took too long. Those are the ones that bug me.”
“We need to eat, sleep and do all of that. We never get to sleep normal. I think people tend to forget that we are people too. We miss our families.”
“I can show sympathy to those that lost a loved one, but I am not crying alongside them. The person that just died is not my friend or family member. It is harsh to say that, but that is what you have to do to make sure that you do your job the right way.”
“I have been on a call where a 16-year-old boy was killed in a car by a drunk driver. The victim was sitting in the back seat of the car and they were waiting at a red light. A drunk driver rear ended their vehicle at a high rate of speed and killed the back seat passenger. He was only 16 years old. It was horrible. It was probably one of the worst calls that I have ever been on, honestly…”
“I don’t think age really matters on death. Whether the person is an adult or child, it is tough to handle. I think it can be a little more emotional on a child due to the feeling they may have missed out on the joys of life growing up as a kid. They really haven’t had the opportunity to live. That makes it the most difficult.”
“To me you just have to understand that it is just part of the job. Death is just hard no matter if it occurs during our patrol shift or if it happens to a loved one on our personal time. Each person deals with it in a different way, but on the job, you have to try and just know that it is part of the job. That’s just how it has to be.”
“Children usually do not have control of their situation and therefore are true victims. It becomes more personal since I have children and think of them when a child is hurt or killed.”
Following much vocational reflection, Packard decided a career in first response or law enforcement would be an ideal post-graduate plan. He enrolled in a course about deviance in fall 2016, taught by Professor of Sociology Joanna Gregson. That student-faculty relationship developed into valuable mentorship for the budding sociologist.
Gregson said Packard’s capstone research elevated his aptitude for conducting interviews.
“Landon blossomed as a qualitative interviewer,” Gregson said. “As much as he hated the process of transcribing, he had a knack for drawing out his participants, making them feel comfortable, and eliciting heartfelt and sometimes painful stories.”
Gregson stressed that Packard’s growth is indicative of the learning-by-doing model that’s key in student-faculty research opportunities at PLU.
“I could tell stories all day long about challenges I’ve encountered while collecting data or the thrill of developing an analytical hunch, but until students experience it themselves, it is just that: stories,” she said. “When they immerse themselves in the project — from conception of the project to collection and analysis of data, and presentation of findings — they take ownership of their learning.”
As for Packard’s research itself, Gregson said it’s meaningful work that addresses a scarcely studied angle of emotional management for first responders.
“I have grown up around police officers and firefighters my whole life. I wanted to relay stories, but mainly I wanted to relay them so people could grasp what these people go through every day because they don’t know how to show it.”
– Landon Packard ’17
“While psychological research has examined how employees process and experience that stress, we knew little about how the culture of a workplace can shape those experiences,” she said. “While Landon’s research looked specifically at first responders, his findings have implications for other work environments where people confront emotionally challenging situations.”
It exemplifies what universities hope to see in student research, she added: “that it be personally meaningful, scientifically rigorous and with applications to the real world.”
Anna Leon-Guerrero, chair of sociology and another mentor for Packard, said she watched her student’s confidence grow throughout the research process.
She stressed that all students who conduct scholarly research face similar challenges that she and her colleagues have faced in academia.
“Faculty (members) support student learning and success by sharing our own passion for sociology,” Leon-Guerrero said. “Their capstone highs and lows are no different than what we’ve experienced in our own scholarship.”
Leon-Guerrero noted that one theme within Packard’s findings surprised her. “His subjects reported that they were never formally trained on how to manage their emotional labor,” she said. “Landon was critical about the lack of preparation and training for emotion management and questioned the long-term effects on first responders.”
Despite the difficult conversations he had with his interview subjects, Packard intends to pursue a career in emergency response. “It hasn’t turned me away from it at all,” he said. “If anything, it’s made me more interested.”
He said his calling has expanded as a result of his research — to not only help the people he’ll save in the future, but to help fellow first responders.
“It is now time for us to rescue the rescuers,” he said.