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Team helps emergency workers cope with stress

February 22, 1999

Stress Management TeamBy KIMBERLY YAKOWSKI / Staff Writer

photo: RICHARD T. MEAGHER / staff photographer




EMMITSBURG, Md. - When firefighters from Emmitsburg's Vigilant Hose Co. experienced the loss of three of their volunteers last year, the Maryland Critical Incident Stress Management Team was there to lend a compassionate ear and relieve stress through counseling.

The team of mental health professionals and volunteer peer counselors came to their aid again on Feb. 15, when Terry Lee Myers, 50, died fighting a fire at Mount Saint Mary's College.

The fire and rescue personnel discussed events leading up to Myers' death and what emotions they can expect to feel as a result. The session was led by firefighter Russell G. Voelker, 44, coordinator for the Maryland Region II Critical Incident Stress Management Program. Region II includes all of Washington County.

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"It gives me satisfaction to know I can help them try to learn to manage and relieve their stress," he said.

In select situations, a counseling team may be called to areas beyond its normal region, such as in Emmitsburg, he said.

This can happen, for instance, when a peer counselor is closely associated with the tragedy, he said.

"He was a big help. We all got a lot out of it," said Wayne Powell, Vigilant Hose Co. public information officer.

The MCISM team also was requested when firefighter Scott Mullendore was paralyzed in a car crash last month.

A peer counselor for over 10 years, Voelker got his start after a tragedy at his job as a firefighter at Washington Dulles International Airport in Virginia.

A friend was injured and a counselor came to speak to the emergency crew, he said.

"It helped me through a difficult time, and I wanted to help others," he said.

The Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems created the MCISM team in 1987, acknowledging the pressures and high stress emergency workers face.

Peer counselors are screened for suitability, then go through an initial training course followed by additional classes, he said.

During periods of high stress, emergency workers can experience various symptoms: fatigue, nausea, intestinal upset, concentration problems, crying, feeling emotionally numb and wanting to avoid repetition of potentially stressful calls, he said.

While these are normal reactions, they may keep volunteers from performing their normal routine. Counseling often can help, he said.

Most often Voelker said he will conduct a "debriefing."

"A critical incident stress debriefing is a group interaction which assists emergency services personnel in talking about their thoughts and reactions to a stressful event," he said.

The debriefing is a way for volunteers to learn to manage their stress symptoms, he said.

In all his years as a peer counselor, Voelker has been called out numerous times but is unsure exactly how many.

"I have no idea. I never kept track," he said.

Although each MCISM region has a local segment of the team, all members regularly train together and assist each other so that a consistent approach is maintained, he said.

To most effectively counsel emergency workers, it's best to hold educational or "debriefing" sessions as soon as possible after an incident occurs, he said.

Voelker spoke with about 60 volunteers at Emmitsburg the day Myers died.

He feels he can be an effective counselor since he is one of them - a firefighter and emergency medical technician.

"People don't look at me and think, 'What does this guy know?'" he said. "I've seen a lot of things - deaths of children, coworkers, friends. I've seen a lot."

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