Firefighters to get help during tragedies


National initiative is based on Charleston's experiences with sofa store fire, N.Y in 9/11

A new national initiative to help firefighters with trauma and tragedy draws on Charleston's experience after the June 2007 Sofa Super Store blaze that killed nine city firemen.

The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation is unveiling this new model at Firehouse Expo in Baltimore today before an audience of fire service officials from across the nation.  It's part of a movement to promote better physical and emotional well-being in the fire service.

Ronald J. Siarnicki, the foundation's executive director, said the idea here is to provide firefighters with the resources they need to deal with traumatic events and situations they encounter in their jobs.  Some may simply need to talk about the experience with their colleagues, while others might need intensive counseling or medical help.  The key is to recognize those varied needs and have a system in place to address them, he said.

"There are different levels of care that should be applied only as needed," he said. "Most firefighters are pretty resilient and they see a lot every day, so we can often adapt and work through it with little intervention.  But when you have bigger issues and bigger concerns, you need to be able to provide bigger resources to deal with them."

The foundation drew from its work in New York after the 9/11 attacks left 343 firefighters dead and from its efforts in Charleston after the Sofa Super Store fire in West Ashley.

Several New York City firefighters were among the peer counselors who came to Charleston after the deadly blaze to counsel and support local crews struggling to deal with the large loss of life.  Out of that effort grew the Charleston Firefighter Support Team and a peer-counseling program of its own.  More than 200 city firefighters and their family members have turned to the support team for counseling.

The support team has an annual budget of about $320,000, which pays for office space and the services of two retired firefighters who do peer outreach, three clinical counselors and one part-time psychologist.  The city of Charleston funds the program, which is a collaborative effort between the South Carolina State Firefighters' Association and the state Department of Mental Health.

"We were able to take a program that was already road-tested in New York and basically customize it to meet the needs of a much smaller department," said Gerald Mishoe, a retired North Charleston firefighter who heads the support team.

The experience in Charleston reinforced the value of having peers on hand who truly understand what firefighters are going through, Siarnicki said.  It also showed the value of having clinical workers understand the vernacular of firefighters and the importance of having these workers permanently assigned to a support group to build trust, he said.

Dr. Richard Gist of Kansas City, co-leader of the research and development team for the national model, said another thrust of the initiative will be to make sure counselors and departments can access information and methods to help firefighters without huge investments.  A number of online programs can help, including materials developed by the National Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center at the Medical University of South Carolina, he said.

"The time to have these things in place is well before you need them," Gist said.

By Glenn Smith
The Post and Courier
Friday, July 23, 2010
Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or


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