Volunteer of the Year: ‘Emotional Paramedic’ and La Jollan honored by San Diego Police

By Ashley Mackin

When someone calls 911, if police arrive and determine that there are people in distress, Crisis Interventionists such as La Jolla’s Noreen Haygood are usually the next responders called to the scene.

Haygood is what you might call an emotional paramedic, comforting families immediately following traumatic situations. For her work as a Crisis Interventionist, Haywood was honored at a San Diego Police Department Volunteer Appreciation Luncheon on April 24.

Crisis Interventionists often handle the death of a family member, the most challenging being the death of a child or baby due to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome because “nobody can really prepare to deal with that,” Haygood said.

One of her more memorable and challenging calls involved a 12-year-old girl discovering her father’s body after he had committed suicide. “For somebody to (commit suicide) in such a way that child would discover, it is incomprehensible,” Haygood said. “It was very difficult.” In another example, a little girl witnessed her father throwing himself in front of a train.

Reactions to situations like this vary in Haygood’s experience. One man went to work after discovering his wife had died.

Another instance Haygood recalled as “freaky.” In this case, a 95-year-old woman died, and her daughter could not understand what had happened. “She kept asking ‘who are all these people in the house’ and ‘what’s happened’ and ‘where’s my mother’,” Haygood said. “Her children couldn’t get through to her ... I don’t know whether it was shock, she just couldn’t process it.” After two and half hours, Haygood explained the woman “woke up” and said she felt like she had been in a dream. After that, she was more cognizant of the situation.

Keeping calm in these situations may seem like a challenge, but due to her training, Haygood feels prepared. “You’ve got to accept right away that this person is dealing with a situation that you cannot fix,” she said. “You learn to give yourself time to respond, taking two or three breaths before saying anything.”

Haygood said there aren’t what might be called “techniques” for calming and comforting people; it’s just about listening. She said one of the most important emotional responsibilities is to let the people she is helping feel whatever they are feeling.

“The other main responsibility is to try to leave the people that we’re helping in a condition that they know what they are going to do next, so that they have a plan for the next couple of days.”

Looking forward is important because it helps remind people that they will, one day, feel better. Haygood said she helps people focus on what they are going to do next to keep their lives going. “Getting people prepared to act is probably the most positive thing you can do for someone who is grieving,” she said.

She also said, “You try to make sure that things are going to be more or less under control when you leave so they can (feel empowered to do) all the things that has to be done when a person dies.”

The training they get not only mentally prepares Haygood and the other volunteers, but also offers them support for when emotions get heavy.

Haygood said a debriefing tool she uses is reminding herself that she helped people. “The sense that you have been able to help these people get through this immediate trauma is very gratifying, so you can say ‘it was a terrible situation, but I was able to help’ and that keeps you going,” she said.

Haygood has the added benefit of having her husband volunteer in the same work. “We debrief each other and support each other,” she said.

Her husband — to whom she has been married for over 60 years — won a Volunteer of the Year Award in 2010. Now, it’s Haygood’s turn to be honored.

The San Diego Police Department named Haygood Crisis Interventionist of the Year at their April ceremony. “She has a soft manner about her that is comforting to those going through a traumatic event,” said Rick Kirchhoff, SDPD Volunteer Services officer for crisis, reserve and cadets.

“I know that if Noreen is being sent to any type of scene she will go there with the intent to help anyone in need and not ask for anything in return. She truly gives freely of herself to benefit others.”

Her nomination form states, “Noreen often accepts assignments at the last minute and is always willing to step in to help if nobody else is available. Her quiet strength has been an inspiration to her fellow team members. Noreen shows everyone the right reasons to volunteer through her hard work and willingness to sacrifice. She is truly a valued member of the SDPD and Crisis Intervention Team.”

How to become a Crisis Interventionist

■ Visit the website:

■ Must have the following qualifications: 21 years or older; communicate well with people; safe driving record; valid CA drivers license; personal vehicle with insurance.

■ Time commitment: Successfully complete 100 hours of training and ride-along with police, fire and EMT officers; on-call 20 hours per month; attend monthly meetings