Chaplains, counselors help firefighters deal with grief, stress after fatal fire
By Emily Ford
As many times as they come to the rescue, firefighters themselves might need the help now.
The stress and sadness surrounding the deaths of Justin Monroe and Victor Isler could become too much to bear, even for the bravest of the brave.
“You need to look out for your brothers and sisters as they deal with this tragic loss,” Bill Burns, a chaplain with the Charlotte Fire Department, told Salisbury firefighters.
Monroe, 19, and Isler, 40, died Friday battling the historic Salisbury Millwork fire. Four others were injured.
Burns told firefighters gathered the next day at the Central Fire Station that the stress is evident.
“I can see it in a lot of faces,” he said.
Firefighters should reach out to those who have become isolated, reserved, irritable or angry, Burns said. Some might turn to alcohol or compulsive behavior.
“They may not want to open up, they may not want to talk,” he said. “But they need to.”
Churches and clergy play an important role in supporting firefighters and their families during this difficult time.
“This community has blown me away with its faith,” Burns said.
Help on the way
For some, the joint funeral for Monroe and Isler at 2 p.m. today will mark the beginning, not the end, of their grieving period.
“The next few weeks or months can get even harder,” said the Rev. Doug Hefner, a chaplain and bereavement counselor at Rowan Regional Medical Center Home Health and Hospice.
Many efforts are underway to help firefighters and their families deal with grief and stress.
The Salisbury Fire Department and several volunteer fire departments have their own chaplains. Charles Miller serves as chaplain for the Rowan County Fire and Rescue Association.
The Rev. Gene W. Moore, chief of chaplaincy and pastoral care for the N.C. Fallen Firefighters Foundation in Raleigh, has spent several days in Salisbury and is ready to provide care for firefighters and their families.
Hefner is offering free counseling for individuals or groups and will go to any fire department to facilitate a support group.
“Those group sessions are so powerful, sometimes it doesn’t take a lot, just a couple meetings,” Hefner said. “It’s important to know you’re not the only who’s feeling that way.”
A trained team of firefighters, including Burns, will help Salisbury firefighters next week.
The regional Crisis Incident Stress Management team, which did initial work at the Central Fire Station last weekend, will return to conduct debriefings with firefighters who were at the scene and any others who need help dealing with powerful emotions.
They will reach out to fire departments at Miller’s Ferry and Spencer, where Monroe also served, as well as the many departments that responded to the five-alarm blaze.
Like Burns, members of the team are firefighters themselves. The team leader is a mental health professional and volunteer firefighter.
Mental health experts have determined that firefighters dealing with a traumatic event do best when talking to other firefighters. Similarly, paramedics under stress want to talk to other paramedics, police officers to other police officers, and so on.
These are called “peer debriefers,” and the process they use is cathartic, said Beth Connell, Rowan County Emergency Management Services manager.
Connell, a former paramedic peer debriefer, contacted the Crisis Incident Stress Management team.
The team will ask firefighters what role they played at the scene to get a sense of what unfolded, she said. Unlike a critique, where someone determines whether a firefighter’s decisions were good or bad, peer debriefers do not judge, she said.
“It’s to encourage them to talk about it,” she said. “When you recount the story to someone, it rekindles strong emotions and helps you release them in a healthy manner.”
The team will reassure firefighters who aren’t sleeping, can’t concentrate or feel anxious that these symptoms are normal.
Firefighters will learn healthy ways to lessen anxiety, lower stress and end nightmares.
Some are dealing with regret as well as grief, Connell said.
Since Monroe was just 19 and Isler had two children, “some firefighters kind of wish it had been them instead,” she said.
Fog of grief
Preparing for today’s funeral has provided a distraction for firefighters, as they clean their uniforms and “polish every piece of equipment in sight,” Connell said. “They are busy with the details.”
After the funeral, tremendous sadness will continue, she said.
But getting back to normal routines and daily activities should help.
“People move through it at their own speed,” she said. “Nobody experiences a traumatic event in the same way.”
While most firefighters eventually will feel better on their own, some will need help to lift the fog of grief.
“There’s not a tremendous difference between those people who are going to do well and those who will struggle,” Connell said.
Stress has a cumulative effect. So people who had normal stress levels before the deaths of Monroe and Isler will handle the additional stress better, Connell said.
But someone who was already going through a divorce or other personal crisis might struggle more, she said.
If symptoms like anxiety, depression, inability to concentrate or sleep disturbances persist over time, friends and family of a firefighter should seek help.
“Most people who choose public safety careers are very strong and do have some pretty good recuperative abilities,” Connell said. “But sometimes, things just get to you.”
Like a family member
In addition to using the stress management team next week, firefighters can consult a list of chaplains and clergy available at their departments.
Salisbury firefighters can receive free grief counseling through the city’s Employee Assistance Program at 800-435-1986, 24 hours a day.
Any firefighter, paid or volunteer, can access free grief counseling from Home Health and Hospice by calling 704-637-7645 between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. and 704-213-2083 after 5 p.m.
They can contact the N.C. Fallen Firefighters Foundation during the day at 919-863-4341 and 919-863-4199 and any time at www.NCFFF.org.
Because firefighters become so close to their co-workers, the death of a firefighter can have the same impact as the death of a blood relative, Connell said.
“This will never go away. You will never forget,” Burns told firefighters Saturday. “But the pain will ease.”
Contact Emily Ford at email@example.com.