CISM Team Helps Okla. Firefighters Heal After Incident

Several departments responded when Bryce Gannon and Tyler Zander were caught in a floor auger at the Zaloudek grain elevator last August.

KREMLIN, Okla. — With an accident as horrific as the August incident that cost the legs of two area teens, victims aren’t the only ones who need to heal.

Emergency personnel who respond to such a scene also need to heal.

Several area fire departments responded when Bryce Gannon and Tyler Zander were caught in a floor auger at the Zaloudek grain elevator in August. Firefighters from Krem-lin, Hunter, Hillsdale-Carrier, Pond Creek and Breckinridge rushed to the scene to help. All told, 20 firefighters — some of them trained emergency medical technicians — responded that day. Additionally, two depu-ties from the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office, Garfield County Emergency Manager Mike Honigsberg and numerous community members came to assist. Ground ambulances from Pond Creek and Enid stood by until helicopters arrived from Stillwater and Oklahoma City so the teens could be flown directly from the scene.

Garfield County Sheriff Bill Winchester said emergency responders have learned over the years it’s important to have critical incident stress management sessions after a highly traumatic call — a session where those who dealt with the emergency can deal with the emotions they pushed aside during the crisis.

The intense trauma of some calls can be so troubling to first responders they quit their jobs afterward, Winchester said. The Kremlin Fire Depart-ment experienced that after Bryce and Tyler’s accident.

“We’ve had two walk away,” said Krem-lin Fire Chief Derrick Harris.

Josh Stephens, Pond Creek fire chief, said rescue work isn’t something just anyone can do — and some calls are harder than others. Calls involving someone the rescue worker knows, or children, are harder to deal with.

“We’re human, too,” said Rick Oller, Breck-inridge fire chief. “You lie in bed at night and that’s the kind of thing that runs through your mind.”

Gary Lillie, pastor of Hawley Baptist Church at Nash and chaplain for the Nash and Hawley fire departments, understands how traumatic such calls are. He has special training in helping emergency responders work through their emotions.

He met with the firefighters who were called to the Kremlin elevator that same day, and again a couple days later. The purpose of the first meeting was to tell them what they can expect in the coming few days.

“It’s kind of a time for them to stop, take a breath, and say we’re done with this scene and it’s time to move on, but this is what we can expect,” Lillie said. “The debriefing was a couple of days later.”

About 90 percent of emergency workers will experience critical-incident stress at some point in their careers, Lillie said.

“Out of a single incident, about 30 percent will do fine, about 30 percent will have moderate critical-incident stress, and for about 30 percent, it will be severe,” Lillie said.

The stress can manifest itself as sleep disturbances, flashbacks, inability to concentrate, anger, impatience, withdrawal, second-guessing their actions during the incident, agitation, excessive use of alcohol or tobacco, fear the next call will be like that one, and possessiveness toward people they love.

The stress is a normal reaction to an abnormal event, Lillie emphasized.

“If it’s not treated, it will lead to post-traumatic stress syndrome,” Lillie said.

The Northwest Oklahoma Cri-tical Incident Stress Management team brings three peers, a chaplain and a mental health professional together to meet in an incident debriefing with the emergency responders.

“We have several stages we go through during the debriefing,” Lillie said. “The first is their initial response to the incident — what they did, what they saw.”

Then the discussion moves to what thoughts went through their minds after it was over, and what positive things came out of the event.

“The last thing we do at the debriefing is, we go over all of those signs and symptoms that they have or will experience — and that they are having a normal reaction to an abnormal event,” Lillie said. “The team lingers after the meeting so people can talk to them.”

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