Vermont’s first responders can face life-and-death situations any time they show up at a scene. But this week the Londonderry Volunteer Rescue Squad dealt with five fatalities, and now support is being provided to these volunteers that serve this community.
The five fatalities in the community occurred in just a three-day span.
Last Friday the rescue squad pulled a 55-year-old grandmother out of a lake after she drowned trying to save her grandson who fell off a raft. The 5-year-old boy died later in the hospital.
The day after the lake incident, there was a horrific head-on crash that claimed the lives of two nearby residents. Then on Sunday, a former fire chief from Winhall — and longtime supporter of the rescue squad — died of a heart attack.
Londonderry Technical Rescue Squad Chief Kevin Beattie is usually one of the first to show up at an accident. Beattie’s seen a lot in his 25 years with the squad, but he can’t remember Londonderry ever facing something like this.
“If there’s kids involved, generally that’s extra hard, which was the case with the water rescue in this time,” Beattie said. “So it can affect you. ... They say that the effect builds up over time. I don’t think I feel that myself. But sometimes you’re not aware of what’s going on in the long term.”
Beattie said in his more than two decades of service, he’s never had a full debriefing with mental health counselors. But when his chief suggested that they call a team in to talk with everyone who took part in this week’s incidents, Beattie was willing.
“I’ve never been to one. It'll be new to me,” Beattie said. “I’ve been through lots of informal debriefings, of all kinds, but this will be something that will be a first, in my case.”
A few days after the weekend, volunteers from the Green Mountain Critical Incident Stress Management Team traveled to Londonderry to talk with local emergency responders who took part in the rescues.
Peeker Heffernan, a member of the Bristol Fire Department and a volunteer with the stress management team, said it’s important to bring everyone together soon after a stressful event.
“If it’s not dealt with, you can end up with PTSD,” said Heffernan. “And we’re looking to keep people, you know, mentally healthy so that they can keep providing this service and not have personal problems due to what they’re seeing.”
Heffernan said volunteer responders are especially vulnerable to running into mental health issues.
“Nationwide we’ve noticed a problem with first responder suicides,” he said. “The numbers are way up. There’s no accurate way of tracking volunteers. If you’re a volunteer, and your daytime job is working at the hardware store and you commit suicide, they don’t connect the two.”
Claudia Harris also has about 20 years of volunteer work with Londonderry Rescue, and she said there’s a lot more acceptance and recognition these days of the need to help emergency responders.
“Twenty years ago, you know, I don’t think we did much of this,” said Harris. “And I just think that the stigma’s removed, and we really realize that we have to stay strong. And we’re really fighting for volunteers, so if we lose people because of the stress, ... we’ve missed an opportunity.”
About 50 people attended the debriefing, which was closed to the public.