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John Bethard

CHARLES TOWN – The familiar tones of an emergency call sounded throughout the county’s volunteer fire stations last Thursday evening.

Dispatchers were notified of a severe car accident outside of Charles Town. And as they were trained to do, about a dozen ambulance crews and firefighters and several police officers rushed to the scene on Middleway Pike not knowing what they would encounter.

What they confronted was a harrowing head-on collision. Two people had already died, but a third person needed critical medical care to survive.

Those first responders, many of them volunteer rescuers, did their jobs as a coordinated team and saved an 18-year-old man’s life. What happened afterward, in a room behind the scenes, was a call of a different kind to those who responded to the accident, said John Bethard, pastor of Charles Town Presbyterian Church.

It was a special decompressing and debriefing forum for first responders where leaders in the emergency response community can assemble after a particularly traumatic emergency call, said Bethard, a member of a team of eight volunteers that stays ready to guide such forums when necessary.

“Especially any time there is severe trauma or casualties, the big question is always, did I do enough? Did I do it right? Was there more we could have done?” Bethard explained.

The debriefing forums give first responders the opportunity to process questions by talking through them together as a group, Bethard said. The gatherings help the participants provide answers to their questions and doubts.

The talk sessions are available to any volunteer or career responder in the county, from ambulance drivers to firefighters to emergency call dispatchers, Bethard said.

About two dozen first responders attended a special debriefing held after Thursday night’s fatal accident. Bethard, who has a decade of experience and training assisting first responders with the particular stresses of the jobs, guided the forum. He also stopped by the county’s 911 communications center to talk to dispatchers there about the accident.

“Thursday’s accident was not the normal fare for our first responders,” he explained. “Those kinds of incidents do not happen routinely.”

But any emergency call can, in an instant, turn tremendously confusing and fast-paced, where critical decisions have to be made in circumstances filled with uncertainty, Bethard said. “It can be overwhelming. Every emotion that you could think of, they go through, and they need to understand what they need to do in those moments.

“What we don’t want first responders to do is stuff their feelings about a call—their emotions about a call—deep down inside themselves,” Bethard explained.

For example, first responders who have lost children themselves could have the most difficulty dealing with their emotions after responding to a traumatic pediatric emergency call, Bethard said.

In addition to allowing first responders to talk together about their emotions, thoughts and feelings, the debriefings also allow the participants to review what happened during an emergency call and learn how to better face such situations in the future, Bethard said.

Like an emotional dashboard warning light, the debriefing sessions can help first responders better recognize, understand and deal with their emotions, Bethard said.

The debriefings also help first responders take advantage of free counseling resources the county makes available to its first responders, he said.

Those peer-group discussions, Bethard said, can be the most helpful to first responders, particularly when veterans share their perspectives and experiences with less-experienced responders.

“If you’ve been doing it for 30 years and know exactly how this kind of call goes, there’s an immeasurable value for that moment to hear them talk about the call,” he said.

The debriefings also provide an opportunity to remind first responders of the health programs available to them, including professional counseling the county has a firm provide the county’s first responders, Bethard said.

Bethard said the debriefings can also help first responders understand the importance of self-care to cope with the accumulating stresses they shoulder from their jobs.

The symptoms that tell whether someone is not sufficiently caring for themselves can manifest in substance abuse, unhealthy eating habits or difficulties within their personal relationships, he said.

Depression and suicide rates among first responders are also disproportionately more common among first responders than the general population, he said.

“Those are things we don’t see because that’s behind closed doors,” he said. “So you say, if you’re feeling any of these things you should come to talk to us.”

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