Counselors Continue to Help Charleston Pick Up the Pieces Following Tragedy

Before the ashes cooled at the Sofa Super Store, counselors at the local state mental health center had started an effort to help survivors.

CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Memories of the Charleston 9 will live forever.

They were husbands, fathers, brothers, best friends, neighbors, colleagues. In addition to being firefighters, they made unique marks on their communities.

Captains Billy Hutchinson, Mike Benke, and Louis Mulkey; Engineers Mark Kelsey and Brad Baity, Assistant Engineer Michael French; and Firefighters Earl Drayton, Melvin Champaign and Brandon Thompson walked out of their homes on June 18 for the last time.

They perished doing their job -- battling a blaze in a furniture store.

Before the ashes cooled at the Sofa Super Store, counselors at the local state mental health center had started an effort to help survivors.

Understanding the connotations associated with mental health care and counseling, professionals realized they had a challenge ahead of them. They also were faced with the intricacies of dealing with firefighters and their families -- a course they weren't familiar with.

That was until National Fallen Firefighters Foundation Executive Director Ron Siarnicki shared the program used in New York City.

"It's a great model, and we are so fortunate that Ron also introduced us to members of the New York crisis team," said Debbie Shogry Blalock, executive director of the Charleston/Dorchester Mental Health Center, who has spear-headed the counseling effort.

Two members of the FDNY crisis team traveled to Charleston within days of the tragedy to offer their assistance. That visit marked the beginning of a lasting connection, said Gerald G. Mishoe, project manager of the Charleston Firefighter Support Team.

Sharing ideas is one thing. But, it's better to see how they are implemented. That's why the Charleston team accepted FDNY's invitation to travel to New York to witness their support program.

"It was an incredible experience. We learned a lot," Mishoe said.

Blalock said the professional relationships have helped strengthen the Charleston effort. In addition to helping firefighters, the team also meets with family and friends of the fallen heroes and fire department retirees.

Mishoe, who is with the South Carolina State Firefighters' Association, is the logistics coordinator and one of two peers on the team that also includes two full-time counselors, a part-time counselor and two part-time psychiatrists.

The other peer from the state association, Richard Denninger, is no stranger to tragic incidents. He is a retired FDNY firefighter who was involved with the crisis services unit.

Blalock said the team works well together, and respects the expertise the members bring.

She added that Charleston Mayor Joe Riley and the city council have fully supported the team since its conception. "They realize this is a long term commitment. But, they also understand how important our services are . . ."

Chief Rusty Thomas also realized that firefighters would be needing help, and did more than openly promote the group. "He called all of his officers together. We told them what we have to offer as well as how we would be setting it up. We also told them what to look for, the signs of stress. We encouraged them to call us any time day or night if they thought someone needed our help. They have," Mishoe said.

When a call for assistance comes, regardless of the hour or place, a member of the team responds. They take turns being on call.

"We stay as long as we're needed. If I feel more intervention is needed right away, all I have to do is call," Mishoe said.

While confidentiality is always important, Blalock said it's even more vital for this program.

A separate office has been set up miles from downtown so those seeking assistance don't have to mingle with the public. Side entrances offer even more privacy. A call for help goes straight to a team member 24/7 not a switchboard.

"No names are entered into a computer. No one can get into a data base and find out who received counseling," she said. "That's how committed we are to privacy . . ."

The state is picking up the tab for the first year, while the city will pay for the second year and beyond. The team also is trying to get grants.

The team doesn't wait for someone to walk in or make an appointment. They visit the various stations, and hang out. "Sometimes, we'll get a call after we leave. Sometimes, it happens before we leave the parking lot," Mishoe said. "We'll do whatever we have to do to get our foot in the door."

The biggest advocates come from clients themselves. Some have brought co-workers along or alerted counselors when they believed a friend needed immediate intervention.

A veteran firefighter said the team has been very helpful. "I couldn't get through this on my own. I'll do anything that's necessary. It's been an incredible program. You know there's a macho thing with firefighters. It takes something to admit you need help. You're not weak if you as for help; that's what I tell people."

Mishoe said he's proud to be part of the team that's so committed to helping the families and firefighters cope. "We're always available . . ."

For the counselors, it's been an education. Amanda Custer said she's learned a lot about the extended fire service families and the bonds.

A member of the team also was present when the Charleston firefighters participated in RIT training sessions. Hearing the "Mayday, firefighters trapped," triggered intense emotions.

"I think it was important for someone to be there. We were appreciated," Mishoe said, adding that trust is essential for the program's success.

As they learned in New York, the calls for assistance have been busy at times, and very slow as well. Certain events -- including the recent release of the review panel's report and retirement announcement of Chief Thomas -- resulted in more calls from those associated with the incident.

"We have seen the gamut of emotions: disbelief, distrust, anger, guilt. These are excellent firefighters who are constantly being scrutinized," Blalock said. "This is a proud department steeped in tradition."

Mishoe said the fire service continues to reach out to help those grieving in Charleston. Firefighters from Boston and New York have spent weeks at a time with the team.

As the first anniversary of the fire approaches, extra peers may be on hand to assist in keeping a close eye on the survivors. The team stands ready to listen and comfort.

"We're here," Mishoe said. "We'll do everything we can."