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Some things can’t be unseen: Coping mechanism for elite first responders

Being up close to death and destruction is part of the job for first responders who help during natural disasters. Physical and mental evaluations are routine for those who get sent to disaster zones.

WASHINGTON — Roughly 70 members of Virginia Task Force 1 are waiting to gain entry to the Virgin Islands, which were ravaged by Hurricane Irma.

Once they arrive, many of them will find themselves immersed in some of the worst situations the world can throw at someone.

For the firefighters and EMTs who comprise a majority of the team, being up close to death and destruction is, sadly, part of the job. But it’s not always an easy part.

For the engineers and structural specialists also on the team, those situations don’t come across their desks at work very often, and that’s something that gets taken into account.

“It’s built into our orientation program,” said Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Assistant Fire Chief Chuck Ryan. “Preparing our members and their family and loved ones for the eventuality they may see [something gruesome] as a member of Virginia Task Force 1 … We do a good job of preparing them on the front end and back end.”

Ryan said medical and mental evaluations are a routine part of the mission.

“We have a strong behavioral health support team here at home base that is ready when the team comes back,” Ryan said.

Ryan added they provide “initial diffusing and then ongoing assistance if needed, should those needs arise.”

Task Force Members are monitored as they head out to a scene and upon their return, both medically and mentally.

Ryan said that in addition to blood pressure and pulse checks, “part of that is a quick assessment of ‘Hey, how are you doing?’”

After witnessing something particularly traumatic, Ryan says the team talks about those difficult events among themselves and with peer counselors.

Ryan said some of the questions they ask one another include whether they are struggling mentally and if they are having difficulty sleeping.

“We can provide additional support and resources if somebody puts their hand up and says ‘Yeah, I’m struggling a little bit.’ And we have had that in the wake of some of our lengthier international missions.”

Ultimately, Ryan says a lot of effort is put in to recognizing that those who get sent to some of the world’s biggest disaster zones are still human.


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