St. Petersburg Times--Hillsborough County

A different response to disaster
A group is ready to deal with the emotional problems caused by horrific events.

By TAMARA LUSH, Times Staff Writer
St. Petersburg Times
published May 19, 2003


TAMPA - Diane Fojt is no stranger to trauma.

As a paramedic, she has seen bad car wrecks, grisly murders and helicopter crashes.

Now, she's more interested in the psychological effects of horrific events, which is why she and a group of local professionals have assembled the Community Crisis Support Team.

If a hurricane, bus crash or terrorist attack hits Hillsborough County, the team will mobilize and respond to help victims and their families - especially when large numbers of people are wounded or dead.

"Death notification - those words are engraved in families' minds forever," said Fojt, who was a Bayflite helicopter paramedic in St. Petersburg. "They need compassion, kindness and warmth."

The all-volunteer group is comprised of clergy, psychologists and some nontraditional counselors such as acupuncturists, massage therapists and chiropractors.

"We're not here to patch up bleeding wounds," explained Dr. Martin Cohen, who is a member of the crisis team. "We're here to deal with emotional wounds."

The team was formed with the help of a $120,000 federal grant to the International Traumatology Department at the University of South Florida.

Hillsborough County officials have incorporated the team into its emergency plan, which means that if a disaster unfolds, the team will have access to needed supplies, offices and information.

"We live in a day when the threat of disaster, whether man-made or natural, is a very real threat," said Bishop Bruce Wright, the chaplain for University Community Hospital and a trauma team member.

The team responds when the county's Emergency Operations Center declares a disaster. One or two team members may actually go to the scene of a disaster, while the director - who is Fojt - would meet with police and fire department officials.

As soon as possible, the team would begin contacting victims and their families. Some people may need spiritual help. Others may be storing stress in their bodies, so a massage therapist may be helpful.

The crisis team will also hold community briefings.

"We want to create a safe space for people," said Fojt.

Fojt and Cohen have researched several disasters in an attempt to organize the crisis team's plan. They discovered that there are no other counties with their own crisis team.

The also found out that in times of disaster, chaos reigns.

"All different entities show up," said Fojt. "Here, all things will be available under one organization."

Emergency workers already have such a team to help them.

Called Critical Incident Stress Management, it is comprised of emergency workers such as paramedics, firefighters and police.

Stephen Hodge is part of that team.

He decided to counsel peers who had witnessed horrific events after he was one of the first paramedics at the scene of a mass murder in 1989 in Tampa.

Hodge treated a pregnant woman who had been eviscerated by Newton Slawson, who was executed for the crimes on Friday; Slawson also killed the woman's fetus, husband and the couple's two toddlers.

A year after the crime, Hodge began having trauma-related problems.

"It was a mental injury to me and all the firefighters who were there," he said.

Hodge now helps counsel others, and has since changed jobs. He is now a fire inspector, teaching fire safety. But he remembers the terrible things he saw as a paramedic.

"I have done the job and walked in their shoes," he said. "I may be able to help someone in a similar situation."

Fojt points out that while emergency workers have trauma counseling available to them, regular citizens have not - until the Community Crisis Support Team. The team is looking for volunteers. Fojt said she hopes to eventually have 300 people on the team - 100 mental health volunteers, 100 clergy and 100 local citizens of all different backgrounds. Along with a three-day training session, volunteers must have other requirements, she said.

"A compassionate heart," said Fojt. "And a willingness and desire to want to help others."

- Tamara Lush can be reached at (813) 226-3373 or at lush@sptimes.com