How to cope with firefighter non-LODDs

By Ronald J. Siarnicki

Recently my community of Kent Island, Md. suffered a tragic loss of four young men. These close friends, ages 18 and 19, went for a ride mid-day and were involved in a fatal motor vehicle accident.

There are no real answers as to how or why this occurred, but now my community is faced with addressing the aftermath.

In addition, the impact of this tragedy has affected my local fire service as one of these young men was a member of the Kent Island Volunteer Fire Department and another was the younger brother to an active member of the United Communities VFD, where I serve.

Both of these departments responded to the accident scene. Unfortunately there was nothing that the rescue crews could do, delivering a second emotional blow to our fire service members.

Call for assistance
Upon learning of the accident, an immediate response of assistance, support and comfort descended upon our community. The administrations of both departments began the process of pulling resources, reaching out to the families of these young men, and supporting our members who were impacted by the incident.

While these deaths were not a result of fire department activities, they truly affected our entire fire service family. The stressors created by this incident were very visible and if left unchecked, could possibly affect the delivery of effective fire, rescue and emergency medical services to our residents.

Departments must be ready to deal with tragedy when it strikes close to home and must have a plan as to how they will address issues as they arise.

Whether or not it is a line of duty death, the same basic principles apply: Have a plan in place, practice the components of the plan, learn from each time you administer it and make adjustments from the experiences you have. Most importantly, stick with the plan as best as possible, openly communicate all aspects of the plan and empower team members to discharge the various tasks and actions that need to be performed.

The best learning environment is achieved when individuals are engaged in the activities being taught and mentored through the assorted steps in the process. Sharing the workload not only makes the job easier, but it provides depth within an organization by having more people who are able to get things done.

Resources available
If your department does not have a plan for these types of occurrences, then please contact the NFFF and ask for our materials that contain sample plans, SOPs and departmental best practices. If you do have a plan, then these materials might be a great way to evaluate the overall effectiveness of your strategies against what other departments are doing.

At my department we are continuing our efforts to communicate with each other and work through issues around our firehouse kitchen table, a natural comfort zone that firefighters use to strengthen their resilience when tragedy strikes.

But some of us will need more extensive help and that is why the NFFF has been working for the past four years to develop a new Behavioral Health Model to support the first responder community. One core element of this new model, stress first aid, involves peer support and was adapted from the combat operations stress first aid model used by Marines Corps and Navy personnel.

I will close by expressing my deepest sympathies to the families of these four young men: Tyler Elzey, 19, Harrison Rhodes Smith, 18, Cory Pessagno, 18, and Michael John Ringenbach, 19, to their friends and neighbors and to the Kent Island and United Communities volunteer fire departments who were most impacted by this loss.

They may be gone, but they will never be forgotten. May they rest in peace.

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