Mental Health Task Force Established in Charleston

The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation is organizing a task force of professionals.

CHARLESTON -- The firefighters' funerals are over. The national media has left town.

But, things are far from back to normal for the Charleston Fire Department and members of the fallen firefighters' families and co-workers.

However, they won't have to go far for support. A task force has been established to provide counseling and address mental health issues.

The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation has been authorized by Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley to spear-head the effort which is already taking shape, said Ron Siarnicki, NFFF executive director.

State and local psychologists and other health professionals will be joined by survivors, including family members and other firefighters. "It's important to get peer support teams together," Siarnicki said Thursday following two days of organizational meetings in Charleston.

"We will be putting an action plan together to reach out to people other than firefighters and their families. They include other agencies that came in such as police, EMS, dispatchers, mutual aid companies..."

The chiefs' network -- an established NFFF group -- will be working with Charleston Chief Rusty Thomas and his staff.

Siarnicki said the local IAFF organization as well as the South Carolina State Firefighters Association are involved in the process.

"We're talking about putting together both short and long-term plans. Everyone deals with grief differently. Both the mayor and the chief understand how important it is to get this program underway..."

The families of Charleston's fallen have had shoulders to lean on since the horrible incident occurred. A volunteer with the South Carolina State Firefighters Association has been with each.

Morris Russell said he feels humble and honored to have come to know the family of Capt. Mike Benke.

The evening after the fatal fire, Charleston Police escorted him to the captain's home to meet his family. After a quick hello, Russell asked if he could come back the following morning.

"They are a wonderful family, a class act. I told them I'd help them anyway I could with anything. They see me as a connection, someone they can trust."

A firefighter in Lancaster County, S.C., Russell said he told them up front if they didn't feel like talking or answering the phone, it was OK."

Russell has made a commitment, one he sees lasting a lifetime. "You just go with your heart. That's what I've done."

Chief Chris Nunnery believes he's a perfect fit with the family of Melvin Champaign.

"Melvin's favorite sayings were 'Glory be to God' and 'Bless the Lord.' And, I've been praying for the Lord to guide me, and give me strength."

Nunnery said he also has a new family, and will be around to help forever. "Some live in Tackoma and Seattle area so it will be a long distance relationship. But, that's OK."

The 15-year member of the state association said the family accepted his offer of assistance with open arms. "It's been draining, but a wonderful experience to know I can help."

Providing family escorts isn't the only activity the association has been involved with since the deadly fire. In January, members attended a workshop conducted by the NFFF to provide assistance in the event of a line-of-duty death.

Siarnicki said it's the NFFF's goal to have a task force in every state that can immediately tend to the needs of firefighters' families.

On June 16, the South Carolina group held its first meeting, and discussed its mission. Little did they know that 48 hours later they would be put to the test.

All 10 task force members went to Charleston.

"The first thing we did is meet with the mayor and chief to tell them we were not here to take over. We were here to help, and we had a lot of resources," said Jim Bowie, executive director.

Their objectives from the onset were clear -- make sure the survivors were cared for and planning a memorial service. "That's what they asked us to do. We promised we would not make decisions without their input. And, we kept them advised. We ran things by them..."

Sitting in the command post last Saturday afternoon, Bowie said city officials realized early on the logistics of the memorial service and the days ahead would be overwhelming.

An incident command system was initiated, and various people were assigned tasks. Charleston police and city officials also participated in the effort.

A local chief handled scheduling the fill-in crews at the Charleston fire stations so personnel could attend the funerals. Others coordinated lunches and other meals to be served in between the services.

Bowie said there was a multitude of things to do, and that everyone worked well together.

On Tuesday, a financial benefits seminar was conducted for families. Representatives of federal, state and local agencies were available to meet with the survivors to assist them with the paperwork involved.

Siarnicki said the South Carolina task force worked well. "This is just what we envisioned. We're hoping to get one in every state. We received a Department of Justice grant to get these started. It's important to have this nucleus group because they know the players in their state."