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Counselors aid workers at scene of jet crash

Wednesday, September 12, 2001

By Deborah Mendenhall, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Two teams of volunteers from the local Critical Incident Stress Management program were dispatched to the Somerset County site of yesterday's crash of United Flight 93 to provide care to front-line emergency responders.

The teams, consisting of mental health workers and peers, will look for signs of severe stress in the local police, paramedics, and firefighters who were first on the scene, said Richard Boland, program coordinator for the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's team.

"People make the mistake of believing that firefighters and paramedics are used to death, but they are not." Boland said. "They are trained to deal with and control situations, but they are rescuers. Their whole goal is to prevent death."

The stress management team has 75 volunteers, including psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, nurses, police, firefighters and paramedics. Boland, a paramedic of 30 years, helped found the Pittsburgh program in 1989 as part of an international group. It is one of about 900 teams world-wide.

At a disaster scene, they pull aside and counsel front-line workers who show extreme stress. The symptoms could be chills, confusion, fear, guilt, withdrawal or erratic movements.

Some stressed workers will be reassigned to different jobs such as moving from the front lines to organizing supplies behind the scene, Boland said. Others may be sent home. Afterward, team members follow up with workers.

"We will be doing this for the next three or four months," Boland said. "This will be a long, drawn-out process, not just for us but for America."

Karen Gano, manager of social services for Pittsburgh's Mercy Health Systems, will be among another set of stress management volunteers who are going to the Somerset crash site today.

Team members will spend a lot of time listening and reassuring the emergency workers that their bad feelings are normal, that they might experience flashbacks, or have trouble eating or sleeping, she said.

"It's important that they realize that feeling rotten is normal, but they shouldn't try to numb the pain with alcohol or drugs," she said.

Psychologists and psychiatrists at the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic stood ready to go to Somerset County to counsel plane crash witnesses, said Ken Thompson, associate professor of psychiatry.

The attacks on the United States will have profound and long-lasting effects on people, he said.

"This was a world-shattering event," Thompson said. "It was meant to do that, it has done that, and it has been unbelievably successful in altering our sense of safety and security on a massive scale."

Children's Hospital has set up a Web site to help parents talk to their children about the tragedy.

The site advises parents to spend extra time with their children during the crisis, answer their questions simply and briefly and limit their exposure to news reports.

For more tips, parents can go to http://www.chp.edu/ or call 412-692-7105.


Staff Writer Anita Srikameswaran contributed to this article



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