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Pride in work, training help emergency workers cope with tragedy 

For the men and women who respond to emergencies in Haywood County, the first six months of 2008 have been among the most difficult, and tragic, in recent memory.

So far this year, three children and one adult have lost their lives as a result of house fires. A father and son from Florida died in a plane crash in the wilderness near Cold Mountain. And the loss of life hasn’t been the only difficulty.

In April, approximately 425 acres on Pinnacle Ridge were destroyed when a debris fire got out of control. Containing the fire, which was the largest in Haywood County since 1987, was particularly grueling for the seven ground crews working on steep terrain in dense undergrowth to help control the fire.

In the midst of these difficult duties and tragic outcomes, those who respond to emergencies – the law enforcement officers, paramedics, fire fighters, 911 communicators, and others – draw emotional support and pride from at least two sources. One is an extensive training program that provides regular opportunities to test and improve their skills, develop working relationships with different disciplines, and practice response strategies for the kinds of situations they are likely to face in Haywood County, such as wilderness search and rescue, the challenges of mountain terrain and swift water, and others.

The other source of pride is the kinship and rapport that comes through working not only with each other, but potentially a whole network of support agencies and personnel from around the state and nation, that are ready to be called into action when needed.

For members of the Haywood County Sheriff’s Emergency Response Team (SERT) and the Cruso Fire Department, both of those sources came into play when a plane carrying Florida pastor Forrest Pollock and his 13-year-old son Preston crashed on May 12.

SERT members, fire department personnel, and the Asheville squadron of the Civil Air Patrol began their search around 3 a.m. Tuesday, May 13. A Civil Air Patrol aircraft and a helicopter from the N.C. Highway Patrol were instrumental in helping emergency officials on the ground get to the wreckage. A N.C. National Guard helicopter from Salisbury, NC, and the Helicopter/Aquatic Rescue Team, flew in to assist with recovering the bodies.

Due to the terrain, emergency workers were forced to hike several miles into the wilderness, cut through dense briars and other underbrush, crawl on hands and knees, and use whistling and hand signals to keep tabs on each other as they searched for the wreckage.

Despite the tragic outcome, many emergency workers, including David Walker, assistant fire chief with the Cruso Fire Department, saw it as a prime example of the benefits of good training and working together.

“There is definitely a sense of pride in knowing that you’ve got these outstanding agencies coming in to help, and they came in and found out that we were capable, too,” he said. “The airplane crash was tragic, but when it was all over, I feel like they got to go home, and have a proper burial, and there was some closure. All those things couldn’t have happened if we hadn’t gotten to them that day.”

From January 2007 through May 15, 2008, the Continuing Education program at Haywood Community College had provided 97,054 hours of training to fire fighters, law enforcement officers, rescue personnel and health care providers. The training sessions are held several nights a week at locations all over the county and each discipline has state or federal requirements for professional certification.

In addition to allowing local personnel to maintain their levels of expertise and acquire new skills, training sessions are tailored to address skills needed for issues that are particularly challenging, but sometimes necessary, in this region.

In January, for example, Walker and others from the Cruso Fire Department, as well as members of the Sheriff’s SERT team, participated in 80 hours of wilderness survival training. With packs containing a map and compass, protein bars and water, and various other essentials, the group braved 11-degree temperatures and 15 mile per hour winds.

They used the map and compass to practice what to do if they were involved in a search and rescue effort and got off track; they set up an emergency shelter. They practiced several other survival skills, many of which they put into action as they scaled the mountain in search of the crash site. That experience proved to be invaluable when the SERT team and firefighters were trying to get to the site of the plane crash, but there were still several challenges to face.

“For the last mile, it got real rough,” Walker said. “There were very thick briars and we had to get down on our knees to get through them. We were whistling to keep up with where everybody was. Then, all of the sudden, we came up on it.”

On another occasion, Haywood County Emergency Management conducted a mock in the Shining Rock Wilderness that emphasized search and rescue skills. Practicing in such environments helps emergency personnel learn more about each other and how they might react in a real event.

“You get to know how another person thinks and you feed off their reaction,” said Don Robertson, who joined the Sheriff’s Office since 1988. “That makes all the difference in the world.”

Understanding how other team members are going to respond can become particularly valuable when circumstances change, as they did when they arrived at the crash site and knew they’d be working the scene of a fatality instead of a search and rescue mission.

“We knew it would be impossible to get anybody else up there, so we worked it like a wreck,” Robertson said. “We did diagrams of the area, showed where there were broken trees, we secured the area.”

While training is designed to help emergency personnel be prepared, it doesn’t make them immune to the tragedies they encounter.

“Dealing with death is tough,” said Deputy Jim Schick, a member of the SERT team. “When it’s children, it just doubles. You never really get used to it; you just know its part of the job, and something you’ve got to do. A deputy sheriff sees a lot of bad things.”

A week before the plane crash, when a woman and two children died in a house fire in Cruso, Tim Henson, a law enforcement officer and chief of the Cruso Fire Dept., and eight other Cruso fire fighters donned their black uniforms and attended the visitation.

“It wasn’t easy, especially when we saw pictures and video of the people who’d died,” Henson said. “That was pretty difficult. But in this business, if you don’t have some compassion for people, you’re in the wrong business.”