Helping others cope with trauma

April 12, 2018 11:17:33 AM

Isabelle Altman - [email protected]


Kirk Gayle said everywhere he goes in Columbus, he sees death. 


For example, the 25-year veteran of Columbus Fire and Rescue recalled recently leaving Lion Hills on Military Road after a lunch only to remember a new bride killed in a wreck nearby many years ago. And most first responders he knows have similar issues. 


"I never leave here," he said. "What's happened has happened and it's always going to be there every time I turn a corner. It's a constant reminder all the time. 


"I have a good coping system built in place," he added. "Not everybody does. Not everybody has a spiritual place. Not everybody has a wife that can handle hearing those stories." 


Gayle is one of the few individuals in the Golden Triangle area trained in critical incident stress management (CISM), which is designed to help people coping immediately after a traumatic experience. 


Several more, though, will complete the training today.  


Gayle, along with local chaplain John Almond, facilitated a free three-day CISM training course for individuals throughout the state and especially in the Golden Triangle. More than 65 people, from local first responders to employees of state level government departments, began the training Tuesday at Trotter Convention Center. The program will wrap up at 5 p.m. today. 


Rita Felton, who is retired from the Air Force and now works as a junior Reserve Officer Training Corps instructor at Columbus High School, said she's been impressed with the training so far. She thinks it's something the community needs. 


"Especially in a small town like this where we already are a close-knit group of people, it's important for us to know that we have a source, a team, that is trained to come in and provide what we need to survive," she said. 




'Psychological first aid' 


KLOVE Radio, a Christian radio station headquartered in Rockland, California, is sponsoring the free training. The course would normally cost several hundred dollars for each student.  


"We do this all across the country," said Mike Henderson, KLOVE's crisis response care director. "This year we have 40 different cities that we're going into. So our goal is to come alongside the police officers, the EMS, the public safety officers, all of them ... and provide critical incident stress management training to help them cope with the trauma of things that they face." 


Henderson said KLOVE has sponsored these courses for seven years. He became involved in CISM when he began looking for ways to help his team cope with the stresses of their work. 


"We have a group of people who we call 'care bears' but it's people who answer the phone at the radio station," Henderson said. "... We're dealing constantly with people calling in. ... Last year our office had about 180,000 phone calls that come through. So this is phone calls dealing with any(thing) from how to get ants out of your kitchen to 'I've got a gun and I'm going to shoot myself.' So ... I'm always looking for something that will help my guys and gals in dealing with the phone calls." 


Trainer Jim Nelms has been involved in CISM even longer. The retired captain from a Georgia fire department has worked with International Critical Incident Stress Foundation Inc. for more than 30 years, providing training for communities around the country. 


He refers to what he does as "psychological first aid" -- it's not counseling, he stressed, because it's meant to be more short-term. And while it can help anyone who has recently gone through a traumatic experience, the focus is on police officers, firefighters and other first responders. 


"We cover a thing that's called a critical incident," Nelms said. "And by definition, that's any unusual event that has the potential to create significant distress and that distress overwhelms a person's normal ability to cope." 


Of course, he said, that's different for each person. 


"It's all about perception," Nelms said. "What's unusual or difficult for you may not be the same for me. So we covered that. And that could be anything from children being killed to line-of-duty death to suicide. We look at multiple ways: Either one-on-one or we sit in a circle and we talk in groups. There are a lot of different approaches." 


Nelms is taking a community-based approach, he said, because particularly in small towns, traumatic incidents can affect entire communities. 


"If an officer is killed in the line of duty, to think that his death only affects the Columbus Police Department would be wrong," Nelms said. "... It's going to affect the paramedics that responded. It's going to affect the paramedics who responded to a traffic scene he was working two weeks ago. It's going to affect, it may even affect media. ... It's going to affect Little League baseball because he's a coach there. It's going to affect the Sunday school class he attends. It might affect his church, some other social groups he attends." 




The next step 


Henderson said he hopes to come back to Columbus next year and offer more advanced training, specifically dealing with grief after trauma. 


As for Almond and Gayle, they hope to put together a core group of locals who can be deployed throughout the community when disaster strikes. Gayle said he's already worked with the Emergency Management Services and Nelms has offered consultation services. 


"What the plan is is (today) there'll be a sign up sheet," Gayle said. "... We're writing policy. ... I want somebody from law. I want somebody from fire. I want somebody from police. I want somebody from EMS. I want somebody from the civilian world because when the plane (crashes) or whatever happens, it's going to affect all of us across the board."