The Deadliest mass shooting in American history was by no means just another shift for the fire fighters and paramedics who moved swiftly toward a scene of utter chaos and devastation in the early morning hours of Sunday, June 12, at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida.
The response to the Orlando mass shooting seemed more like a military response to a base attack -- jumping and moving to the sound of rapid gunfire and assessing the unfolding situation. Many of those fleeing the nightclub were passing directly in front of the bay doors at Fire Station 5, just 300 feet from the Pulse nightclub.
The attack at the hands of one man who unloaded the contents of a SIG Sauer MCX semi-automatic rifle and 9 mm Glock 17 semi-automatic pistol over a three-hour period claimed the lives of 49 and injured 53 others, all patrons of the popular nightclub. The gunman was also killed.
Despite the chaos and the horror, more than 75 IAFF members, working in tandem with Orlando police, SWAT teams and emergency dispatchers, performed their jobs professionally and courageously, making swift and at times difficult decisions on how best to save lives.
“Our members simply did a fantastic job,” says Orlando Local 1365 President Ron Glass. “They put their training to work immediately and without hesitation and because of that many lives were saved.”
Orange County Local 2057 President Andre Perez notes the scene was understandably frenzied at first, with those escaping the club running either to Station 5 or to the nearby hospital. “Once incident command was set up, the response progressed well and our members performed as they were trained,” he says.
The International also responded immediately to offer assistance and support. At the request of Glass and former Local 2057 President Darrell McCrystal, Assistant to the General President for Health, Safety and Medicine Pat Morrison, along with an IAFF Peer Support Team, were on the ground within hours to begin helping members process and heal from the devastating event.
“I am so proud of the tremendous job that our members in Orlando did under war zone conditions,” says General President Harold Schaitberger. “I want all of our members there to know that the IAFF has their backs. We are here to help them continue to be the great public servants they are.”
The first dispatch was logged at 2:03 a.m. on June 12. The 75 personnel comprised of members of Orlando Local 1365 and Orange County Local 2057 responded to the scene. Units from Seminole County Local 3254 also relocated to Orlando to help backfill coverage.
An incident command was in place within minutes, arranging triage, treatment and transport to Orlando Regional Medical Center, just a quarter of a mile away from Pulse.
President Glass says the response unfolded in three distinct phases. First, when dozens of injured who had escaped the club were treated and transported – many with multiple gunshot wounds. Rescue 7, staffed by paramedics Carlos Tavarez and Josh Granada (both members of Local 1365) treated and transported 15 patients, one suffering from a gunshot wound in each lung.
The second phase involved a long and tense standoff when the shooter had retreated to a bathroom inside the nightclub with several hostages. The gunman had led police to think that he had strapped himself with explosives.
In the third phase, fire fighters conducted further triage, treatment and transport after a SWAT team had broken through a wall and taken out the shooter. President Glass notes that his members have undergone extensive training in active shooter response and were fully prepared.
As the sun rose, the IAFF team, along with others with experience in mass casualty events, began the long and crucial work of helping members cope with the aftermath of an event that will forever remain etched in their minds.
“In planning our response we wanted to focus on immediate needs, but also what will be needed in the coming months,” says Morrison. “Within 24 hours we were on the ground inOrlando meeting with the executive boards of both locals.”
The IAFF, Local 1365 and Local 2057 leaders and the behavioral health Peer Support Team partnered with peer support leaders from Local 1365 and counselors from the University of Central Florida to hold three back-to-back meetings at Local 1365 headquarters with dozens of members and others who had responded to the scene, including dispatchers, to make sure counseling services were made available.
Behavioral health peer support instructors from Boston Local 718, the Uniformed Fire Officers Association (UFOA) Local 854 and Indianapolis Local 416 met with members to offer assistance.
While many of those attending the meetings sat and listened, others had questions.
“We’ll be back, offering additional assistance, as long as it takes,” says Schaitberger. “We know from experience that coping with these tragedies can take a long time. We are here to help them heal so they can continue to work and serve their communities.”
Between 18 and 30 percent of fire fighters and paramedics suffer from post-traumatic stress. The IAFF has made it a top priority to end the long-standing stigma associated with asking for help or admitting to needing counseling to address the stressors of the job, and is providing resources and education to shed more light on behavioral health issues in the fire service, including peer support training and online resources for post-incident counseling. Many departments don’t have the necessary behavioral health services in place to assist members in crisis. Too often programs are reactive and not proactive.
McCrystal notes that even with employee assistance programs in place, members expressed appreciation for the counseling services offered by the IAFF.
“Some of our folks said it was truly helpful to be able to talk it through with peer counseling professionals outside of the Orange County Fire Rescue Department,” he says.