Nearly 150 people unaccounted for. Two-hundred responders on site at any given time. As we watch the coverage and mourn after the Surfside building collapse, we cannot forget about the first responders working the scene — the search and rescue teams and firefighters digging through the rubble, the police officers keeping the scene secure, the volunteers at reunification sites trying to maintain a sense of calm, paramedics on standby hoping for life, and medical examiners and death investigators working diligently to identify remains.
The magnitude of the building collapse is something that has not been witnessed in our country since 9/11, and before that, Oklahoma City. All of the training and briefing in the world cannot prepare responders for the psychological impact they will undoubtedly endure on scene and the weeks and months after.
Do responders and search and rescue expect to find deceased victims? Of course. Body parts? Definitely. What is often the most difficult to manage is not what they are seeing, but what impacts their other senses.
They hear cries of family members, longing for their loved one, hopeless, and even sometimes demanding that efforts are not going quickly enough. They hear sounds within the rubble, and question if that was a whimper, moan, or part of the deteriorated building bending and breaking.
They feel dust and ash on their bodies at the end of a hard day’s work. Most impactful, many times, is what they smell — crumbled drywall, spilled gas from vehicles, the sweat of colleagues working tirelessly in the Florida humidity, and the unmistakable scent of body decomposition.
While most responders and relief workers will be resilient and recover without issue, we know based on past mass casualty incidents that anywhere from 10% to 25% will suffer longer-term effects, like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Our responders are dedicated professionals — they will work long hours without break in hopes of just one breakthrough, sacrificing their own time with their own family, energy, well-being, and sleep.
The longer they go without breaks, and believe me they want to, the less protected they are from long-term psychological effects. Even search and rescue canines will be impacted psychologically, working long days and not being reinforced as usual by finding a living, breathing human.
We must also consider the responders from Oklahoma City and 9/11 who are watching this incident unfold on television. There is no doubt that this has awakened their ghosts — they see it, hear it, taste it, and smell it, almost as if they were there.
Why haven’t they found more bodies? Why aren’t they moving quicker? Why haven’t we heard more? Why aren’t families getting answers? If you find yourself asking any of these questions, I beg you to please stop, take a step back, and think about the hundreds of responders putting their lives and livelihoods on the line to help find these answers.
Give them some grace. Thank them. Pray for them.
Dr. Katherine Kuhlman is a police and clinical psychologist based in Scottsdale, Arizona. She has spent her career helping law enforcement and other first responders throughout their careers, including debriefings following officer-involved shootings, suicides, and mass casualty incidents. She is a national speaker on officer wellness and trauma. Dr. Kuhlman an expert in the field of behavioral threat assessment and targeted violence. She serves as an Executive Board Member for the National Center for the Prevention of Community Violence. Read Dr. Katherine Kuhlman's Reports — More Here.
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