First responders: Dealing with tragedy – the untold story

We follow the story on TV, our phones, the Internet, or read about it as it unfolds – a critical car accident, a horrific murder, a deadly fire – and everybody is shocked at the tragedy of it all. Sometimes it’s people we know and sometimes it’s not, but with mass media it’s all personal. Sometimes we cry, even when we don’t know the victims. We sympathize with the family members who lost a loved one, post on Facebook at how shocked and sorry we are, offer prayers and condolences – and so we should. It’s part of our humanity. But we don’t always think about the untold story – that of the first responders for whom it is always personal. The officer who goes in and discovers the bodies of murder victims, the paramedics who work on the accident victim in an ambulance on the way to the hospital only to learn he or she did not make it, or the firefighters who run into a burning building with hopes of saving someone and then have to come to terms with the fact that, despite all their efforts, the outcome was not the one for which they had hoped. They often then still have to face grieving family members and tell them that they’re sorry, there was nothing more they could do.

Fatal fire on Shamrock Drive, Feb. 12, 2017. Contributed photo Feb. 12,

Local first responders in Walton County were faced with all those scenarios in less than a week recently – and it was tough on them. The fire last Sunday that took the life of Monroe resident Andrea ‘Andria’ Godard, her 10 year-old daughter, Jasmine, and friend Quentin Moses was a particularly difficult situation for them.

“We had a debriefing after it for them, but it’s never easy,” said Monroe Public Director Keith Glass. “It is particularly hard for them when there is a child involved. Some of them are daddies themselves and that’s always tough.”

Fatal fire on Shamrock Drive, Feb. 12, 2017. Contributed photo

Walton County Fire Rescue Chief Mike Moore said that 14 firefighters from both Walton County and the City of Monroe responded to the scene of the fire on Shamrock Drive just after 6 a.m. last Sunday morning.

“There were a total of nine firefighters who entered the building and four during the time of the rescue,” Moore said.

The rescue was an attempt to get Moses out in time to save his life. Officials said by the time firefighters got to the fire, it was already fully involved. And by the time they entered the home, it was already too late for Andria Godard and her daughter. WCFR Capt. Jeff Allen said that Moses was in another part of the home and there were frantic attempts to get him out and to save his life.

Firefighter uniforma and equipment destroyed during rescue attempts in fire on Shamrock Drive in Monroe, Ga. on Feb. 12, 2017. Contributed photo

“The crews that went in made a hell of an effort to get him out. They aren’t really feeling good about it because he didn’t make it, but they should. They definitely went above and beyond,” Allen said. “One of the firefighter’s turnout gear was destroyed during the rescue. We’ve had to order a new set. His was actually on fire when they came outside with the victim. He actually had a blister on his neck from where his air hose running from his SCBA was so hot that it burned him through his hood when he turned his head.”

Allen said two of the firefighters who went into the fire to attempt the rescue were from WCFR and two were from Monroe Fire Department. Moore said that these firefighters will be recognized for going above and beyond. The sad part is that despite getting Moses out and rushing him to the hospital, he too was not able to survive the fire.

Firefighter uniforma and equipment destroyed during rescue attempts in fire on Shamrock Drive in Monroe, Ga. on Feb. 12, 2017. Contributed photo

First responders have to take these scenes of tragedy home with them and try to get them out of their minds. When there is a particularly tough situation, like the one last Sunday, chaplains and counselors are called in to help them cope.

“It’s similar to war traumatic disorders – posttraumatic stress disorder – along those same lines,” Moore said. “We try to get them to open up and talk about what happened – what they saw, as opposed to clamping up. It helps get them back to action much sooner. With kids it’s always a lot tougher – especially for the guys who have kids of their own.”

Fatal fire on Shamrock Drive, Monroe, Ga. took the lives of three people on Sunday, Feb. 12, 2017. Photo credit: Sharon Swanepoel

Chaplains from local law enforcement responded to the scene to help friends and family members of the victims cope with the tragedy as it unfolded Sunday as well as to be there for first responders.  A special session was held for first responders a couple of days later, led by Rick Baker and Kris Parker.

Parker is a former WCFR firefighter as well as a chaplain. He said, for a firefighter, the toughest part of such a tragic incident is a combination of things – the loss of life, watching the reaction of the families as well as re-living the scenes that they’ve dealt with.

“A firefighter will question everything about his or her response to the incident and wonder if they would have been able to have made a difference if they had changed something about their actions: lining up their gear differently in the station, taking a different route to the scene, being more efficient with putting on their gear, searching to the left in a house fire versus to the right: the list could go on and on,” Parker said. “Add to those questions the images of the families’ responses to the loss of their loves ones, and the scenes forever burned into the firefighters’ minds, and you have a recipe for trouble without proper actions.”

Parker said that part of helping a firefighter or emergency worker deal with tragedy includes helping them understand that the number of victims isn’t limited to just those who lost their life or who were injured in the incident.

“The members of the public safety workers who responded to the scene, the 911 operators who have to answer the 911 call and dispatch appropriate help, even their families are in a way a victim of the incident,” he said. “This is in no way to suggest that the firefighters’ loss is equal to the loss of the family members of those who lost their lives, but there is still a loss involved.”

Parker said his faith impacts every facet of his life, even when it comes to debriefing, but that is not the focus after an incident like this.

“The debriefings are less about having a particular faith or religion (or no religion at all), and more about the health of the firefighters, other emergency workers and ultimately their families,” Parker said. “In the best case scenario, a post incident debriefing is only part of a package of greater care and focus towards public safety workers that includes pre-incident training, family support training, and even professional mental health training if warranted. My role in a debriefing process is to help guide a conversation about the facts, the thoughts of the firefighter, their emotional outlook, and how their emotions are showing up in their life. Having the conversation amongst the group of people that were involved in the incident, and normalizing their thoughts, feelings, and emotions related to the incident, is one of the best ways to help a firefighter deal with the incident. Public safety workers see and deal with a lot of tragedy and they’re often conditioned to think they aren’t supposed to ‘feel’ a certain way or discuss their feelings about some of what they have seen. Dispelling that myth, and opening the door to future conversations that may be needed, is a crucial aspect of helping those tasked with keeping the general public safe be as healthy and effective as possible.”

Within 24 hours of dealing with last weekend’s fire, first responders in Walton County were back out dealing with a fatal car accident. It is the nature of the business, but that doesn’t make it any easier for them. However, there is something about the commitment to what they do that has them putting the uniform back on and heading back the very next day, ready to spring into action the minute that call comes in.

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