The Critical Incident Stress Debriefing Team in Indiana County wants to help first responders cope with traumatic events. This group is tailored specifically to those who run toward danger when others will run away.

Dr. Jeffery T. Mitchell describes a critical incident as “Any situation faced by emergency service personnel that causes them to experience unusually strong emotional reactions which have the potential to interfere with the ability to perform at the scene later.”

The CISDT’s program is based around Mitchell’s work. Mitchell is a clinical professor of emergency health services at the University of Maryland in Baltimore and president emeritus of the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation.

The team has ten members that can be divided into two groups: mental health and service. The service members include people like County Coroner Jerry Overman, Maria Dietz, team coordinator formerly of The Open Door, and the Rev. Fred Catchpole of Citizens’ Ambulance Service. They interact with responders during emergencies and can relate to the culture.

The mental health volunteers are people like Dr. Ralph May, chief clinical officer at the Community Guidance Center, and Pam Laird, intake worker at the guidance center. These team members have the mental health background and training and will take responders through Dr. Mitchell’s process.

The CISDT was formed in 1996 in response to a need by first responders, May said.

“They didn’t have a place to turn for support and an opportunity to talk about those events in a manner that respects their roles and confidentiality.”

In January the team traveled to Pittsburgh to retrain under Dr. Mitchell himself. Since then, they have seen an increase in calls and want to make their services better known. Right now they handle an average of one call per month.

Volunteer firefighters are one of the team’s biggest demographics. Pennsylvania has 1,800 fire departments, more than any state in the U.S., according to the U.S. Fire Administration’s 2012 data. About 90 percent of those departments are staffed by volunteers with another 7 percent listed as mostly volunteer, giving the commonwealth about 50,000 total volunteers.

These volunteers may not have access to the same stress coping resources available to career responders such as state police.

“They’re right on the front line all the time,” May said. “We don’t want to lose people who are good on the front line because what happens, particularly with younger people, when something like this hits them early it can turn them away from being an EMT or a firefighter.”

“Infants are particularly hard for them,” Overman said. “I’ve actually witnessed in the past in car crashes when two firefighters, in two different instances, when they first walked up, the appearances of those people remind them of their daughter or their son and now they turn away from the scene and are crying in their cars because it’s too traumatic. And these guys were rough and tough.”

May said it has nothing to do with how strong or smart a first responder is. It doesn’t mean they have a mental health problem.

“It’s that there are certain kinds of events that hit people in certain ways. Everyone has something that can hit them.”

“Stress debriefing is not psychotherapy and it’s not counseling,” May said. “It’s a specific kind of intervention for people who do intense work as a regular profession. So they need a special kind of knowledge and awareness.”

The two basic services the team provides are diffusion and debriefing. Diffusion is less common and involves responding to an incident as it happens or just after it happens. For example, if there is a large fire and it is a multi-hour affair, the team may be called to set up for on-the-spot service.

Debriefing is the team’s main function. The team may go to a fire hall and debrief a group that responded to a traumatic incident and the team will work through a structured series of steps to talk about what happened then wrap the debriefing up in a way that will allow the responders to continue their work.

“The outcome we would like to see from a debriefing is to decrease the emotional stress related to traumatic events to lessen any future mental health issues or post traumatic stress disorder,” Laird said.

The team will not just show up to an incident. They must be contacted by a group or individual in need. There is complete confidentiality and there are no records or notes taken during debriefings.

“Stress debriefing is not psychotherapy and it’s not counseling,” May said. “It’s a specific kind of intervention for people who do intense work as a regular profession. So they need a special kind of knowledge and awareness.”

CISDT has no source of funding and is staffed completely by volunteers. They rely on donations from the community and grants to cover training costs.

They will also work with private companies if there is a traumatic incident in the workplace.

People can get in contact with the Critical Incident Stress Debriefing Team by calling The Open Door at (877) 333-2470. This line is open every day, 24 hours per day. The crisis worker will then contact Craig Faish, the crisis hotline coordinator, and they will activate the CISDT.


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