THE LIVING AND THE DEAD: OVPD PSYCHOLOGIST COUNSELS POLICE, FIRE AND RECOVERY WORKERS AT GROUND ZERO - The Explorer: Import

THE LIVING AND THE DEAD: OVPD PSYCHOLOGIST COUNSELS POLICE, FIRE AND RECOVERY WORKERS AT GROUND ZERO

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Posted: Tuesday, October 16, 2001 11:00 pm | Updated: 7:45 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

Oro Valley Police Officer Sarah Hallett knows that even after all the missing in the terrorist attack on Manhattan's World Trade Center are accounted for, the death toll is likely to rise for years to come.

Hallett, director of OVPD's Critical Incident Stress Management Team and a psychologist specializing in the treatment of police officers, is working in the midst of the devastation to staunch the incidence of post traumatic stress disorder among the emergency services workers who have seen the carnage at Ground Zero and endured a form of grief that will stay with many of them for the rest of their lives.

"In general, police officers are more likely to kill themselves than die in the line of duty. Now we add the trauma of what occurred in New York City on top of that statistic, and we can expect a high incidence of post traumatic stress among those working at the World Trade Center site," Hallett said. "We know from the bombing in Oklahoma City that the divorce rate there went up 300 percent and we had at least six confirmed suicides among the rescue workers. The post-traumatic stress rate was up around 35 percent of those involved in Oklahoma."

Hallett was called in to assist by New York City's Police Department's crisis intervention team known as POPPA, an acronym for Police Organizations Providing Peer Assistance. The all-volunteer organization was formed in the mid 1990s to offer counseling and support to police officers after a wave of suicides occurred in the NYPD.

Oro Valley Police Chief Danny Sharp said the town didn't hesitate to answer POPPA's call for help, and four members of Oro Valley Police Department's crisis team remain to assist OVPD's officers with any needs that may arise locally.

"We think it's very important to provide this service for our own community, but we also feel its very important to provide these services and assistance to New York City, as the rest of the nation has," Sharp said. "When the request came in, we felt it was very important to provide the assets we had. We made the decision to do what we could."

Hallett and scores of other people from around the country who are skilled in handling the psychological effects suffered by emergency service workers after traumatic events are at the scene, scouring the World Trade Center site and offering assistance to those working in the acres of rubble from Sept. 11.

While Hallett and POPPA's initial focus was on the needs of New York City police officers, the sheer magnitude of the tragedy has led them to offer their services to all those in need, including the family members of those that perished and the firefighters and construction workers who are clearing debris and attempting to recover the the thousands of dead who remain under the destruction.

"Anytime you lose a member of a police department, it has a huge ripple effect through the agency and through the community. Now, NYPD has lost 43 of their officers in a very traumatic event and there was also a number of officers wounded so the emotional toll is very heavy right now," Hallett said.

"The New York City Police Department estimated it had 800 to 1,000 'first responders' to the scene, plus all the 'secondary responders' who came in after the initial incident to help with rescue attempts, plus the same proportion of firefighters and (New York City) Port Authority Police, as well as hundreds of civilians who were helping at the scene. Those are the people that we we expect to suffer the most profound impact."

Hallett and the other members of the intervention teams have set up a crisis center in the United States Federal Reserve building near the World Trade Center site.

In addition to offering assistance there, the team members also patrol the Trade Center area looking for those in need, as well as visiting a ship that is docked nearby on the Hudson River that the American Red Cross has taken over to serve hot meals to those working at the site.

"Just sitting there at the table with them gives them a chance to talk about their experiences. Another place we try to filter through is the makeshift police memorial that was set up at Ground Zero.

"When police officers come off shift, that's where they go to just pay their respects to those who have fallen. People have left flowers there and photos of all the police officers and firefighters who were lost."

At the impromptu memorial, which is located near the original "Wall of Honor" that the city had erected well before Sept. 11 to remember its police officers killed in the line of duty, Hallett glimpsed a photo of a familiar face - that of former Tucson Police Department officer Brian McDonnell, who had gone to work for New York City's Emergency Services Squad No. 1, and who is presumed buried under the wreckage of the Trade Center.

Hallett said she planned to attend the memorial service that was scheduled for McDonnell Oct. 12 at St. Patrick's Cathedral in Manhattan.

Despite the fact that the nonprofit POPPA program has exhausted all its funds, Hallett said the team still intends to expand its services to meet the ever growing need for assistance.

One area where police officers and others will surely be in need of support and solace is the Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island, where debris from the Trade Center is being transported.

"We'll be setting up a separate operation there. We have approximately 250 detectives working 24-hours a day everyday at the site, sifting through the debris for evidence purposes, DNA and body identification. It's a very difficult and daunting task, and the people working there are facing some very gruesome things while at the same time mourning the loss of our public safety personnel and the citizens of our nation.

"Right now, NYPD has not pulled out any of their own officers (from the rubble.) It's had a very demoralizing effect on people. It's been very difficult and very stressful. They want to bring their brothers and sisters out, as well as those of the Port Authority Police, the firefighters, and the citizens," Hallett said.

Except for a brief trip back to Tucson to take care of personal business, Hallett has been working 12 to 14 hour days at the Trade Center site since the beginning of October. She said she hopes to stay "as long as I can" because she knows the need for psychological services will stretch out for years to come.

"We're in this for the long run because some of what we are going to see is only going to play out in the next year, or for some people, the next several years," Hallett said.

"The death toll in New York could rise if we don't get in there and make the intervention services available. We're clearly at an epidemic proportion of post traumatic stress disorder. New York City police officers, firefighters and emergency service personnel are highly resilient - they're tough people.

"But there's a human side to the job, and what we want to do is help them with the aftereffects in anyway possible."

HOW YOU CAN HELP

Within two weeks of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center In Manhattan, the New York City Police Department's POPPA program had depleted all its funds assisting police officers and others traumatized by the horrific events of Sept. 11.

The funds are gone, but the need for crisis intervention services for emergency service workers looms larger everyday, said Oro Valley police officer and psychologist Sarah Hallett.

"Critical Stress Management is a variety of services. One of the things we're doing is allowing them to talk about their experiences and provide them tools and strategies to help cope," Hallett said. "We provide them information on what's normal to expect. A lot of them are thinking 'I'm going crazy here, I keep seeing these images in my mind and I'm feeling angry.' What we do is tell them this is the normal reaction and they're not crazy. What's crazy is what happened to our nation and what they experienced, and what unfortunately, they will have to live with for the rest of their lives."

The Oro Valley Police Department is collecting donations to help keep the non-profit POPPA program up and running.Tax deductible contributions can be dropped off or mailed to the Oro Valley Police Department, 11000 N. La Canada Drive, Oro Valley, Az. 85737. Checks should be made out to POPPA, Police Organizations Providing Peer Assistance. For more information, call OVPD at 229-4900 or 229-4913.

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