Coping with crisis: Training aims to help first responders provide emotional support during trauma
Police officers and firefighters are usually the first to respond to a traumatic event, but chaplains aren’t far behind to lend emotional support to the people involved.
Chaplains say the deadly fire at the Royal Suite Lodge shows how important it is for people to have an outlet to share their stories. The morning of the fire, people who lived in the complex told harrowing accounts of neighbors jumping from the second and third stories trying to escape the flames.
“Particularly one woman, that image is burned in my mind,” Brieanna Brooks said. “You could barely see her through the smoke, she was half hanging out the window she was screaming, ‘Save me, help me, help me!’”
Chaplain Margaret Griffo was at the Red Cross emergency shelter to help those fire victims.
“When you’re in crisis, you’re not thinking right and you’re so impacted, it’s nice to have a neutral person who knows how to listen, who is calm, and who is not personally impacted to be there and stand beside you,” Griffo said.
She was one of about 80 responders from around the state in Anchorage for crisis intervention training. Griffo said it’s like “psychological first aid.” They learn how to talk to people, but just as important, they learn how to cope with other people’s pain and suffering so it doesn’t impact them emotionally as well.
“You can handle one incident, but if you’re gone 50 times and around people who are in terrible grief, it can wound you and then you’re no good,” Griffo said. “You have to debrief and you have to deal with the things that are happening to you.”
Melissa Kitko, who works with the National Response K-9 Team, was also at the Red Cross emergency shelter the morning of the Royal Suite Lodge fire. She brought her golden retriever Alex in to comfort kids while they waited.
“Many times, the canine makes them feel safe, makes them feel normal so they can start to relax,” Kitko said. “That’s what my goal was that evening was to connect with people and acknowledge their fear and their pain and be a presence of a support for them.”
She said the group training is about getting agencies to work together to get people on to the next chapter in their life.
“When dealing with someone who’s experienced a traumatic event — whether it’s an individual or a group — there needs to be people who support them,” Kitko said.
Anchorage fire Capt. John Paff was also on the scene of the Royal Suite Lodge fire. He said the first crews to respond dealt with the victims of the fire—people who were burned or those who had jumped out of windows to save themselves—while the following crews worked to put out the flames.
“At the time, it’s more of being in the role of doing what our duties command of us, but after the event you have time to reflect on it,” Paff said. “That’s usually when you’re most affected by it.”
He said it’s important firefighters also have an outlet, which is why they started the Alaska Firefighter Peer Support Team. Paff said he hopes to take what he learns at the training to help others around Alaska deal with the trauma they see every day.
“It takes a village to make things happen and when you have the inter-agencies, it’s nice for people to come together to have that common core of knowledge and look at these events and how to put them in perspective,” Paff said.
Responders said victims may never get over a crisis, but leaning on each other, they can provide the help victims need to get through it.
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