Recent Worcester Tragedy Highlights Availability of Counseling

Black bunting hangs where Christmas garland might be on the front of the South Division fire station, and from Greendale to Webster Square, fire station flags flew at half staff yesterday.

FireRescue Magazine: Dealing with Traumatic Incidents

Inside the stations, the city’s firefighters are grieving the death Thursday of Firefighter Jon Davies even as they work to keep the city safe. Several firefighters approached said only a spokesman could talk with a reporter yesterday, but people who have been part of the aftermath of firefighter deaths asked for people’s prayers and said structures are in place to help firefighters cope.

Worcester’s firefighters carry a particularly heavy burden given that Mr. Davies’ death came within days of the 12th anniversary of the Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse Co. fire in which six firefighters died.

Lancaster Deputy Fire Chief Michael J. Hanson said that after Martin H. McNamara V died fighting a fire in 2003, his department met with a critical incident stress management team (one of 12 in the state, including Worcester’s) and stuck together. “After they (the stress management team) left, the guys kind of gathered together,” Deputy Chief Hanson said. “Pretty much for the next couple days, no one kind of left each other, and just talked … Some guys, they didn’t want to go home.

“Our guys are still coping with it, and for us, it’s been eight years,” Deputy Chief Hanson continued. “I can only imagine what those guys are feeling.”

Norwell Fire Chief T. Andrew Reardon, who has been involved with the stress management teams, said, “What a firefighter goes through can at points be a little bit overwhelming… It doesn’t cause you to stop doing what you’ve gotta do, but certainly it makes you draw a breath.

“Firefighters are a pretty closed-mouth group. Their focus is clearly going to be on the task at hand and then taking care of their own. What the stress folks try to do is make sure the firefighters are not only taking care of the matter at hand but also taking care of themselves.”

Stress management teams are not mental health professionals, although they can help with referrals to mental health services, he said. What the teams do is give people a chance to talk through what happened and put some order to the chaos of emotion, Chief Reardon said. However, he noted, it’s just one tool, and it isn’t for everyone. There has been debate nationally over whether it is the best approach immediately after an incident, and the chief noted that officials “have to acknowledge the right of the person to say no.”

Deputy Chief Hanson said Lancaster firefighters received different levels of counseling depending on how close to Mr. McNamara’s death they were. Even though some just listened, he said, “I can’t say that anybody walked away saying it didn’t help.”

For first responders that need more help, there is the On-Site Academy, a nonprofit residential treatment and training center. It has campuses in Gardner and Westminster and focuses on critical incident stress management, according to its website.

Another source of support can be a fire department chaplain. While not every department has a chaplain, the Massachusetts Corps of Fire Chaplains has a wide reach.

The Rev. Susan Suchocki Brown of the First Church Unitarian Universalist in Leominster, is chaplain for the Leominster Fire Department and a member of the Corps of Fire Chaplains. She came to Worcester after the warehouse fire in 1999 and also worked at ground zero in New York City.

“We just kind of stand there and pray and try to be available if someone wants to talk with us and be a listening force and try to bring some of the spiritual into bad situations,” she said.

“We are all incredibly sad. Any time a firefighter doesn’t return from fighting a fire and loses their life in the service of trying to help someone else, the sadness is insurmountable. We need prayers. We need everyone’s prayers and support,” she said.

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