How Do We Take Care of Those Who Remain?

[This post originally appeared as “One of Our Own” in the 2013 Winter Issue of Two More Chains. In 2013 Ben Goble, the subject of this “One of Our Own”, was the acting Supervisor for the Washington State Department of Natural Resources’ Ahtanum IA Crew. Today, Ben is Shift Captain with Clark County Fire District #10 in Amboy, Washington.]

Insights from a Supervisor Who Lost Two Crew Members

Late in September 2013, an off-duty single-vehicle accident claimed the lives of two Ahtanum Initial Attack Crew members. Matthew Trost, 20, and Sam Amaral-Gallaway, 20, had been on mandatory R&R and were returning to their Ahtanum Guard Station when Sam’s Jeep Wrangler went off the side of a logging road and rolled 480 feet. Their acting Crew Supervisor, Ben Goble, was suddenly responding—on several levels—to this unexpected accident. Ben now wants to share all that he learned from this tragic experience with the wildland fire community—so that others might be better prepared for reacting and responding to critical incidents.

Ben Goble’s Overriding Message to Us:

“We hear about fatalities in the wildland community every season. Fatalities and fatality prevention are key themes every season. However, the unthinkable will unfortunately happen again to someone else. Despite these precautions, are we really prepared to deal with the overall effects from a fatality? It is imperative that our focus shifts to taking care of those who remain. Crew members involved, supervisors, and other staff need to be treated and helped just as much as a patient with a life-threatening injury. Not only do we deal with the loss of our brothers and sisters, but the mental toll that it takes on survivors and coworkers can last forever. So, how do we minimize the effects of the fatality and speed the healing process? Critical Incident Stress Debriefings are crucial to ensure that staff members involved are cared for in this critical time.

  • Do you know what resources are available in your area?
  • Do you know your agency policy regarding critical incident management?
  • Do you have a plan in place to help you as a supervisor get through the incident?

These are some of the lessons learned last summer by our Ahtanum IA crew, operated by the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR), as we responded to and worked through an off-duty traffic accident that claimed the lives of our two crew members.”

Ben Goble, acting Supervisor of the Ahtanum IA Crew, says last September 28 started out as a typical, late-September, end-of-season morning. Some crew members are leaving to return home, others are staying on till the snow flies. However, when two of his six remaining crewmembers fail to report to work as scheduled, Ben grows concerned. Next, a local cattle rancher drives into their Ahtanum Guard Station to report seeing tire tracks dropping off the road approximately four miles away. The rancher says he couldn’t see the vehicle—down the steep embankment—from the road.

Ben Goble

“My other crew EMT and I respond to the location to confirm that EMS is needed,” says Ben, a veteran EMT IV (Intravenous Therapy) Technician who is also a volunteer Training Captain/EMT with his local structure fire department.

“We arrive at the scene and I proceeded to go down to the vehicle. My other EMT stays at the road to manage communications. This is when it sinks in that I am dealing with two of my own. Even before EMS help arrived, I knew I was going to be dealing with a critical incident. Despite basic life support, rescue and EMS efforts, both crew members passed before they could be extracted out of the canyon.” (Washington State Troopers will later confirm that both Matt and Sam were wearing their seatbelts, but could not survive the massive fall.)

Ben says his focus then shifted from patient care to: “How do I take care of my crew?”

“My supervisors were notified and the wheels started turning to get a Critical Incident Stress Debrief in place immediately. I knew this was going to hit the crew hard.”

Ben started his wildland fire career in 2000 on a Gifford Pinchot National Forest engine crew. Six years ago, he became a Forest Crew Supervisor for DNR’s Larch Correctional Camp, running one of eight inmate crews. He was detailed into the supervisor position on DNR’s Ahtanum IA Fire Crew last June.

Matthew Trost and Sam Amaral-Gallaway

Matthew Trost (pictured on left), a Senior Firefighter on the Ahtanum IA Fire Crew, had served on the crew the past three years. Firefighter Sam Amaral-Gallaway (pictured on right) worked on the crew in 2011 until he broke his arm. In 2012, he had been serving on their DNR Southeast Engine 561 until September, when he rejoined the Ahtanum IA Fire Crew—two weeks before the fatal accident.

“Matt was a skilled firefighter. He loved his job,” says Ahtanum IA Fire Crew acting Supervisor Ben Goble. “There was never a dull moment when he was around. Anytime the crew was feeling down, you could guarantee Matt would be there to do something goofy to bring the smiles back to peoples’ faces. Matt had that ‘get-it-done’ attitude. He was definitely a leader to the crew and was instrumental to his squad.”

“Sam loved the outdoors,” Ben says. “He always had a positive attitude. It seemed that whenever there was a task that needed a little more manpower to complete—Sam was right there ready to pitch in.”

“Both men,” Ben says, “continue to live in our hearts and minds. They will be forever missed.”

Your Agency Policy Might Not Cover Addressing Those Who Remain
Ben explains that, from a supervisor’s perspective/position, a significant key to dealing with a critical incident is knowing and understanding your agency’s policies and guidelines for responding to these tragedies.

“Even though this accident was off hours and was not an on-the-job fatality, the management of the incident remained the same,” Ben points out. When it comes to advice for other supervisors, Ben explains that “while agency policy can often provide a basic framework for dealing with the incident itself, it might not cover helping those who remain.” He explains that his agency’s “Critical Incident Management Protocol for Managers” document was helpful. “It laid out the framework, what each supervisory position should be taking care of—such as designating a liaison for the families. As managers, it provided a checklist that allowed us to run through the incident smoothly with no real hang-ups or questions. However, it wasn’t real specific in dealing with the critical incident stress and managing the incident after the incident.”

Doing the Right Thing
“So I had no idea what resources were available for our debrief. I didn’t know if I was going to have to try and facilitate it myself—or if a facilitator was available.” After checking with his manager, Ben—“thankfully”—learned that a local facilitator was available.

“Doing ‘the right thing’ is very important to success,” says Ben. “In times of high stress and loss, something that seems small and insignificant can mean a lot to those affected. Everyone reacts to a fatality differently. Some people want to ‘get away from it’, and others become statues in shock.

“Immediately after I cleared the scene, I gathered the crew in the cook house and told them the sad news. I also informed them that a critical incident stress debrief was going to take place in about 20 minutes and that they needed to stay until we completed that defusing.”

Ben explains that, for some people on his crew, this request turned out to be extremely difficult. “A couple of our crewmembers just wanted to leave and go anywhere but the guard station.”

Incident ‘Defusing’ Helps Immensely
“This critical incident defusing process helped those involved immensely,” Ben confirms. “It is critical that within the first 24-hours post-incident this ‘defusing’ takes place. This provides a benchmark as to where people are in the grieving process. And it also helps to identify those people who may need additional help.”

My Coworkers Did Not Need That Burden

After the incident, I found myself lacking focus. I was unable to concentrate on one task for more than about 15 to 20 minutes. This was primarily due to my need to debrief with EMS personnel—separate from the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) fire community. I was able to help myself through this by calling and talking with EMS providers in my home unit and with the local fire district personnel who had responded to the fatality scene. I was the only DNR staff involved with the patient care who actually saw the patients—no one else on the crew did. This is also a very important lesson learned. Those directly involved with patient care need to limit descriptions of what was seen. They should not share those details with personnel who were not involved in patient care. In my case, the things I saw that day, my coworkers were not prepared to deal with. Nor did they need that burden.

Ben Goble, Acting Supervisor, Ahtanum IA Crew, Washington State Department of Natural Resources

Ben stresses how it is critical that anything shared inside this defusing discussion/process remains confidential. “The point of the defusing is to let people’s emotions flow in a safe environment—away from ridicule or scrutiny.”

One of the Hardest Things to Do
“One of the hardest things to do that day was waiting to call each of the crew members who had already ended their season and tell them the news. It was important that they heard it directly from me as their supervisor,” Ben explains. “I didn’t want the crew to hear about it through social media or the rumor mill or from other sources. But, first, I had to wait until Matt and Sam’s families were notified by law enforcement. This notification process took around ten hours—and it seemed like forever.”

Ben says that as soon as he began making those phone calls to his crew, crew members farther down his “call list” started calling in. “Through the social media channels they’d heard that something had happened to the Ahtanum Crew. They wondered what was going on—they weren’t sure what it was, but they knew it was something big.” Sam had been a volunteer with the local fire district who responded to the accident scene. These firefighters knew Sam. They put the word out via social media.

Four days later, a second debriefing occurred. This facilitated session included members no longer employed for the season, managers, and other staff.

The Benefits and Power of Crew Cohesion
“This incident was a true testament to the benefits and power of crew cohesion,” Ben says. “Within 24-hours, half the crew had gathered here (in Yakima, Washington)—even though, for many, their fire season had ended and they had gone home. They returned to support one another. Within one week, we had 75 percent of our crew here (many from California)—and a quarter of the crew from the previous season. Everyone wanted to be together and support each other.

“In the weeks after the accident, the crew took comfort in helping each other and supporting the families of the fallen,” Ben says. “The more those affected talked about the incident, the better they were able to cope with the loss.”

Ahtanum Crewmembers on the 2012 Yakima Complex.

Ben says he now realizes that throughout the immediate post-critical incident time it is helpful to have a checklist of things that need to be done “to help maintain focus and to help bring some order to chaos. I did not have a checklist immediately available to me during the incident,” Ben explains. “I now know how that would have helped immensely.”

Ben’s Checklist
After this traumatic fatal incident, Ben has added several key actions to his supervisor’s checklist. These include: notifying your crew members individually, first hand. “And, when you deliver this news (via the telephone), make sure that people aren’t on the road driving.” (Ben says he gained this advice earlier in his structure fire career.)

In summary, Ben says: “I think the support from management and crew cohesion was critical in getting everybody through this tragic incident.”

Related Resources:

A Primer on Critical Incident Stress Management

National Interagency Wildland Fire Critical Incident Stress Management

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