They’re first to arrive on scene and last to leave — how do emergency responders process what they've seen?

  • Superintendent Michael Buoniconti at Sanderson Academy in Ashfield talks about how the local community is handling the death of 9 year old Summer Steele.

  • Recorder File Photo/Matt BurkharttDavid Zamojski and Gary Ponce, paramedics with South County EMS, check the equipment and drug inventory of one of their ambulances at the South Deerfield Fire Department. The Deerfield Select Board approved the purchase of a new ambulance for the service this week. Matt Burkhartt

Published: 11/1/2016 10:52:52 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Emergency responders are typically the first to arrive at a scene and often the last to leave.

But after the ambulances and squad cars pull away and the officials return home, they’re left to process the mental aftermath — the often troubling and sometimes tragic moments they regularly encounter.

Like on Friday, when officials remained on scene all evening and all night after Summer Steele, 9, was struck and killed by the school bus she was exiting on South Central Street in Plainfield, according to police.

In the days that followed, responders to the accident gathered at support meetings offered by a critical incident stress management team.

Such sessions are confidential and offered exclusively to emergency responders, said Brian Andrews, president of Western Massachusetts Emergency Medical Services.

“Psychological first aid,” Andrews calls it.

Stress management team

Andrews co-founded the Critical Incident Stress Management Team a little over two decades ago. In that time, the team has provided an outlet for hundreds of first-responders to share and reflect on the emergency scenarios they respond to for help.

The team comprises several mental health professionals and specially trained emergency responders, trained to offer crisis counseling. The team is on call 24-7. In a typical call, a department will call on the group to set up a meeting spot for interested responders. The sessions are voluntary and confidential.

In the sessions Andrews leads, he starts off by making one point as clear as he can: “This is not a critique of what happened at the scene.”

Speaking generally about the types of incidents that tend to draw the assistance of the critical response team, Andrews said no two people have identical stress triggers.

“In some cases, it can be the most horrific call you’ve ever been on,” he said. But even calls that are widely considered routine can affect people in different ways.

Lisa Herringshaw, acting director of the regional Emergency Medical Services, said the team has responded to at least 17 calls for service this year.

“We wait for calls to come. We don’t intrude,” she said. “They can activate the team for anything.”

She continued, “Some feel that it’s helpful, (but) nobody is forced to go. Departments don’t force you to go.”

Northampton Police Capt. John Cartledge echoed that sentiment, adding that he encourages his staff to take advantage of support services if they feel they could benefit.

“They’re really important to make sure that our first responders are protected and (that) they get the proper services they need,” Cartledge said.

Cartledge added that the Northampton Police Department has resources in place that are intended to provide structure and comfort for staff in the wake of high-stress calls.

“There’s also an internal peer support group that’s kind of unofficial right now,” he said. “Officers talk to one another and make sure they’re doing OK.”

Debriefing sessions

The debriefing sessions are not limited to those who are having trouble coping. The team also encourages officials who have independently learned to cope with their stressors to participate as well. That way, Andrews said, participants going through the process have the opportunity to learn and model their techniques.

There are numerous visible signs that any one person may exhibit that indicate a person may need to talk through what they have experienced.

The psychological stress, more often than not, tends to manifest differently from person to person, Andrews said — loss or increase of appetite, insomnia, intrusive or graphic thoughts, irritability or waking nightmares.

“Sometimes, that’s the value of debriefing — talking about all of the different (symptoms) that can manifest,” he said.

Andrews said it’s also important that participants understand that these sessions are not intended to substitute for psychotherapy.

“We’re there to give information and help people identify if they’re having issues,” he said, adding that the group helps direct responders to proper treatment if it’s desired. “Our job is to help people process and vent and hopefully move on.

“It sometimes gets dicey … sometimes after a debriefing, they’ll continue to call me and I say, ‘hey, I want to help you, but I’m not a trained (mental health) professional.’”

Students and staff grieve

As services continue to be offered for first-responders, Mohawk Trail Superintendent Michael Buoniconti said Tuesday that students and staff at Sanderson Academy are faring “as well as can be expected in this kind of disaster.”

“As you might imagine … everybody’s (grieving) process is different,” he said. “We’re going to be vigilant of people’s emotional well-being through the balance of the year … this is new territory for all of us.”

Buoniconti said the district is in the process of bringing in temporary staff reinforcements to the school on Friday so that teachers and faculty can attend the funeral services in Shelburne Falls for Summer that afternoon.

Beyond the school counseling services, the district has utilized a crisis-response team offered by the Northwestern district attorney’s office as well as third-party counseling services for staff and students.

“We’re taking it day by day,” the superintendent said.

Michael Majchrowicz can be reached at

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