REGIONAL — It’s been a busy year for emergency first responders.

At the drop of a hat, law enforcement, EMS and fire and rescue diligently rush to crisis scenes to provide emergency help to those in need, even in the most critical situations.

Thanks to a regional team, there’s help for them as well.

Help comes from the Southwest Minnesota Critical Incident Stress Management Team, which provides a debriefing opportunity to emergency response personnel within an 18-county region for assistance in understanding their thoughts and emotions following a critical event.

“We just want to make sure everyone is OK,” said Southwest Minnesota EMS Regional Program Director Ann Jenson, who's based in Dawson. “(Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) is a big thing right now in emergency responders. We’re hoping we can head that off and let this team know what they’re feeling is OK.”

Headed by Jenson, the grant-funded Southwest Minnesota CISM team consists of 35 specially trained volunteer current and former law enforcement, fire/rescue, EMS, mental health counselors and clergy members. Led by a mental health professional, the volunteers may provide defusing and debriefing opportunities for emergency response personnel upon request.

A defusing occurs immediately following a critical incident. A debriefing occurs between 24 and 72 hours following a critical incident. The debriefing is not a critique of the response, but a mental health tool.

The volunteers live and travel within a region that spans from the South Dakota/Minnesota border east to Jackson County and from Big Stone county south to the Minnesota/Iowa border. There are known representatives from Pipestone, Murray, Nobles, Cottonwood and Jackson counties.

How it works

First responders attending the usually optional debriefing sit in the order that they arrived on scene.

“We build that timeline of how that event occurred,” Jenson said. “Then we go back around and deal with the feelings.”

There’s a wide array of events that constitute a traumatic event, but Jenson specifically identified motor vehicle crashes, cardiac or respiratory arrests and “anything to do with children” as being the leading incidents that elicit a response from the CISM team. Jenson added that there are select occasions that hospital staff, doctors and nurses may receive a debriefing.

To make the first responders' activity most effective, the debriefing is exclusive to those who were directly involved with the incident response, said Southwest Minnesota CISM team member Dave McNab.

“You’re in a comfort zone and nothing leaves the room,” said McNab, who is Sanford Worthington’s ambulance director. McNab and wife, Kaley, have both volunteered on the service for more than 20 years.

Area volunteers agree that this year has been noticeably busier. According to Jenson, the team conducted 20 debriefings in 2018. They’ve already been called out 15 times in the first six months of this year.

“There should be more,” said approximately 14-year team member Jeff Gay.

The Jackson County veterans service officer and Jackson city councilman said there’s still a lot of departments that either don’t know about the service or have a “take care of our own” mentality. He said the mentality has certainly improved since his time on the fire and police departments.

“Our idea of debriefing was going down to the bar and chatting it out,” he said. “That’s just not the way to do it.”

Nobles County deputy Jay Clarke has been a CISM volunteer since its inception in 1992. He said the training is especially important for rookies, as they may have never witnessed a tragic or critical incident or been taught how to understand their emotions.

“They learn that what they experience are normal reactions to abnormal events,” said Clarke, who has already been involved in six debriefings this year.

While the team may not be called into action after every critical incident, a series of multiple tragedies may make a department head place a request to help first responders achieve psychological closure.

McNab used an analogy of a bucket of water to express the emotional effect of a continuum of stressful events.

“For that one person, (one incident) may be the one drop that sent the bucket over,” McNab said.

After all, in the Greater Minnesota communities that make up the southwest region, the people who need help are more than just a number.

“When we have these tragedies and deaths they’re (the emergency responder’s) own people,” Jenson said. “They’re people they see walking down the streets every day.”

When additional help may be necessary, Jenson said Southwest EMS can help fulfill that need, too.

Jenson can’t say enough for the volunteers she has, who she says give themselves unconditionally to the team.

“To walk into tragedy and give these people comfort and hope, it’s just incredible,” she said.

The volunteers on the team would like to see new faces get involved. Anyone interested in learning more information may email Jenson, annexecutivedirector@sw-ems.org.