Caring for first responders’ mental health in Hurricane Ian’s wake

Reporter: Taylor Petras Writer: Joey Pellegrino
Published: Updated:

Since Sept. 28, when Southwest Florida’s first responders and dispatchers took thousands of heartbreaking 911 calls, there has been a big focus on those first responders’ mental well-being.

Part of Florida’s emergency response plan for Ian was providing mental health support for our first responders. WINK News asked them what that day was like and how they’re doing six months later.

“I’m getting goosebumps just thinking about it,” said Diana Hernden, division chief of EMS and health/safety with the Iona-McGregor Fire District.

Hernden was one of the people keeping track of those emergency calls as the wind picked up and the storm surge rushed in.

“Our hearts were just breaking for the community,” Hernden said.

She didn’t hear the panic in the voices on the other line—dispatchers handled that—but she wrote down all the calls.

Looking at the call logs six months later still gives her chills: Water rescue, 11 people… water rescue, three people in an attic… 1-year-old needs oxygen.

“We’re public servants,” Hernden said. “We are trained. I think it’s in our blood, as well. And we’re told, ‘You can’t go out there and do that,’ and you know there’s people out there that need your service… that was difficult.”

Meanwhile, first responders like Lt. Jason Lambert had their own families and homes to worry about during the storm.

“Getting those phone calls and then breaking up and then not really being able to call them back and check on them again, that was rough,” Lambert said. “I knew they were safe, but there came a point when I knew we were going to lose communication. And that became very hard. That’s when I started to break down.”

Still, they had a job to do. Once it was safe to respond, firefighters went out to check on each and every call that came in on Sept. 28.

They usually did not find anyone home.

“You just hope to God that they got out, you know, and you hope to God that they’re okay,” Lambert said. “That’s all you can do at that point.”

Florida first responders gather for mutual support as part of the 2nd Alarm Project. Courtesy of the 2nd Alarm project

Kellie O’Dare founded the 2nd Alarm Project after Hurricane Michael devastated the Florida Panhandle in 2019. The organization provides mental health support and resources for first responders across the state.

Her team of first responders came down to help those in Southwest Florida cope with the anxiety from the storm.

“These responders were just working sun-up to sundown after sundown to do their assigned duties,” O’Dare said. “It really isn’t counseling, per se; we like to say it’s ‘tending and befriending.’ Just conversations with friends.”

“Even if they want to talk about football, play cards or whatever it is, our peer support teams are there just to provide that little bit of support,” said Lance Butler, a firefighter with the Tallahassee Fire Department. “Whenever they return back to their families, and they’re out of work mode, so to speak, they start to process everything they say, everything they did, so it’s important to support there as well.”

That’s exactly what the crews of Iona-McGregor are doing—checking in on their firefighter family.

“We were very, very fortunate everyone’s families are OK, and just emphasizing the message that, you know, stuff can be replaced,” Hernden said. “Things are just things.”

Several Iona-McGregor firefighters’ homes were seriously damaged or destroyed in the storm. The fire district lost two of its stations, too.

The 2nd Alarm Project says it was able to connect several first responders with a mental health counselor while they were working, but no one had to be relieved of their duties.

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