Rescuers will need support for recovery

Gwen Chamberlain

More than 80 rescuers will carry vivid memories of  Yates County’s most horrific tragedy in recent memory for the rest of their lives. The work they did at the scene of the July 19 fatal accident in Benton was at once heroic and life-changing.

“It was truly a Herculean effort, which is a compliment to the trainers and responders themselves,” says Dr. Grady Bray, a world-renowned expert in the field of disaster psychology.

Explaining, “the ability to persevere is one of the great ways we — human beings — are able to embrace great pain and great sorrow,” Bray says part of recovering from stressful situations is coming to terms with how can one grow through the experience. “For humans, there is no growth without struggle,” he observes.

Bray, and a team of other trained specialists met with rescuers who responded to the scene of the accident and who worked closely with the response (dispatchers, etc.) for a debriefing the evening following the accident.

Bray is one of the originators of the critical incident stress support movement used around the globe to help rescuers process the changes they go through during and after a disaster.  

What was in the past referred to as “shellshock” or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can be mitigated by the debriefing process.

For Bray, a former Keuka Lake resident and Yates County Coroner who now lives in Houston, there was no question that he would travel to Benton for the Wednesday night session.

This area and our rescuers occupy a special place in his heart, and their response to the accident scene and to the debriefing endears them further, he says.

“I was very pleased with how open and responsive the people were,” he says, describing in general terms how the session with at least 82 responders went last Wednesday.

During a debriefing session, Bray and his team give the people an opportunity to talk about what their experience was during the incident. They ask the responders to talk about the things they saw, heard, smelled, felt and tasted.

Such in-depth probing is used because, according to Bray, when people are in the middle of a critical incident, they create memories in a different way.  Those memories are established through sensory association and are therefore much more vivid than normal memories, which are created with word association and thoughts. “That can be frightening,” he says.

Strong smells that were part of an incident — antifreeze, fuel, blood or other body fluids — or sounds can then trigger what are called “flashbulb memories.”

Bray says this process is a normal and natural human reaction to stress. The debriefing session helps people understand that what they are experiencing is normal and natural and in most cases, universal among the responders to a scene. What was abnormal was the situation they were in.

Through the process his team used Wednesday night, Bray saw a powerful development in the way people were able to support one another by relaying what they went through as well. “What stands out is that people offered support by normalizing the experience over and over again,” says Bray.

What also stands out in Bray’s recollection of the session is the support for rescuers that was already evident from the community. Lyons National Bank provided several pizzas for the session. “I felt like that was such an affirmation for the people who were there that the community wanted to show support. It was totally unsolicited and unexpected. That’s a true mark of the community’s cohesion,” he says.

Bray has worked with emergency responders all over the world following major disasters, and he says he sees in the combination of volunteer and professional local responders the compassionate professionalism unmatched even in areas with paid professional responders.

“That is the highest accolade I can give them,” he says, noting that one of the greatest assets in Yates County is the involvement of the Mennonite community in emergency services.

“They bring a sense of calmness because of their religious faith. They feel powerfully this idea of acceptance of God’s will — that there is a great comfort in that,” he says.

He says that compares to the Amish community’s demonstration of calm acceptance, which he also relates to what he witnessed following the Indonesia tsunami in 2004, when people would bring bodies of  loved ones to Buddhists temples. “It’s all a part of a bigger plan that we don’t understand. There’s a serenity, a calmness. This is simply the way life is. Death is a normal part of life — a part of the plan that evolves,” he says, adding, “Having seen this on a large scale, I felt like I understood it very well.”

Bray adds, “So often, we talk about what the responders give to the community, but there is something else they get from the community.”

Bray says a sign that hangs above his business’s exit reminds him and his staff of their mission as they head out to another group of responders: “It’s often through our service to others that we define the meaning of our lives.”

“Through their work, volunteers refine their own meaning for their lives. There’s a great balance there,” says Bray.