Emergency team leaders seek support amid 'unprecedented' wave of Berkshire tragedies

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PITTSFIELD — First responders handling recent structure fires won't soon forget the dead children they saw at the scene.

So says Mike Gleason, manager of Adams Ambulance and Florida's fire chief.

"It's baggage," he said. "You carry it with you forever."

Those in the emergency management community say the past two weeks brought an "unprecedented" wave of tragedies, the volume of which sent a ripple through the county's first responders. Five Berkshire children have died in the past week, including two sets of young twins.

The county's first responders have also responded to other tragedies in recent weeks, including a snowmobile fatality in Florida and a deadly car crash in Sheffield. Team leaders plan to throw first responders a countywide gathering in hopes of bringing them comfort and camaraderie.

"The number of pediatric victims has been astounding," said Brian Andrews, president of Emergency Medical Services of Berkshire County, representing 16 ambulance services countywide. "We really wanted responders to know that there's people thinking about them. We don't want them to isolate and process by themselves."

Beyond the past week's structure fires in Sheffield and Pittsfield, Andrews said, there have been other traumatic events, too, that he's not able to talk about.

"They've all involved young victims, and in my business, that's one of the toughest calls you deal with," he said.

The call volume ticked up over the past two weeks, he said. He has worked in the industry for more than three decades, and "this is just beyond what I've seen."

"All of a sudden about 10 days ago our call numbers just went crazy for some reason," he said.

And the local events fall against an international backdrop of plane crashes and mass shootings.

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"To have all this happening at once is just a lot," he said. "A lot to process."

Andrews said he hopes that a carefree gathering will help emergency workers combat the stressful surge.

"We thought it was a good opportunity to bring these responders and their families into a totally relaxed atmosphere," he said, where they can "not worry about anything for a few hours."

To help, he's asking businesses to donate gift certificates to give out as door prizes. The average resident can also contribute homemade goods or whatever else they might have to offer between Thursday and Saturday, he said. Those wishing to contribute can call him at 413-499-2527, email at bkandrews@countyamb.com, or stop by his office at 175 Wahconah St.

Short of that, he asks everyone to thank a responder in the coming weeks.

"I think it just shows the public cares, and helps emergency workers realize what they do doesn't go unnoticed," Andrews said.

Lt. Col. Thomas Grady, of the Berkshire County Sheriff's Office, said certain calls take more out of responders than others. For these incidents, he said they're encouraged to call in the Critical Incident Stress Management Team — a regional group he's a member of that delivers stress management support for those handling the types of calls that can tax those working the scene.

Among them: child deaths, line-of-duty deaths and suicides.

"A lot of first responders see some things that the general public doesn't," he said.

Gleason said it can be hard for the average person to understand, which is why it's important for responders who have just seen something traumatic to talk to other responders.

"These people that were there, they will never forget this," he said. "We just want to be there for these people. That's all."

Amanda Drane can be contacted at adrane@berkshireeagle.com, @amandadrane on Twitter, and 413-496-6296.


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