Howard's emergency workers make their mark in U.S., overseas

December 07, 1993|By Ed Heard | Ed Heard,Staff Writer

In a dimly lighted room on the bottom floor of the George Howard Building, dispatchers handle calls from emergency workers who are shaken by tragedies. The calls can come from around the corner or as far away as South Africa.

The Howard County Communications Center regularly handles police, fire and 911 communications. But on a voluntary basis, some workers also help 305 critical-incident stress teams in the United States and 60 others throughout the world. About 400 international emergency calls are taken each year.

"We see a lot of tragedy in our lives. This helps us take care of

our own," said Chief Jim Heller, acting director of the county's Department of Fire and Rescue Services.

"This is very vital," said Jeffrey Mitchell of the Ellicott City-based International Critical Incident Stress Foundation, which provides training and counseling education for emergency personnel.

"This center forms a link to the world for critical-incident stress," said Mr. Mitchell, a clinical associate professor of emergency health services at the University of Maryland at Baltimore County.

South African authorities coping with racial strife, rescue workers in flood-ravaged Missouri or even local police officers pained by a shooting all contact Howard's 24-hour coordinating center for peer support and referrals.

Twelve of the center's 48 dispatchers are trained to help with critical-incident stress. They consult other incident stress teams about organizational plans or help locate the nearest stress management team for a desperate worker.

The dispatchers were honored at 9:30 a.m. yesterday with a framed award from the foundation for their work. The dispatchers continued to work at their computer terminals during the brief ceremony, monitoring calls from anxious residents reporting a break-in or an elderly person with a breathing problem.

"Knowing you're able to help somebody is a reward [in] itself," said William W. Boyd, a fire dispatcher who started working at the center about 35 years ago, when there were only six dispatchers.

David Freeman, chief of emergency services for the Orlando, Fla., Fire Department, said the Howard dispatchers saved emergency workers in his area from a big headache when Hurricane Andrew hit Florida's Dade County in August 1992.

The dispatchers coordinated the relief efforts coming from at least nine other states, allowing the Orlando workers to focus on public safety, he said in a phone interview yesterday.

"We try to make the emergency workers understand that the stress they experience is normal, to not let them beat themselves up thinking they're different," said Chief Free

man, who is the disaster coordinator for the Critical Incident Stress Debriefers of Florida.

The International Critical Incident Stress Foundation was established in 1990 and used Howard County's stress debriefing team as a model.

Since then the nonprofit organization has provided training and education to police officers, firefighters, paramedics, nurses and other emergency workers who are interested in setting up debriefing teams.

Two weeks ago, Mr. Mitchell traveled to New York to help the United Nations set up support resources for its staff.

About 170 U.N. relief workers were killed throughout the world this year while providing disaster relief in various countries, including Bosnia and Somalia.

In recent years, the Howard County debriefing center has dealt with a variety of emergency workers seeking assistance, including Los Angeles police officers after the 1992 riots there; federal agents who participated in the raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas; Hawaiian rescue workers who stood helpless while a shark attacked a woman in Maui; and military personnel involved in Northern Ireland's factional conflicts.

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