On April 17 an explosion at the West Fertilizer Plant in West, Texas sending shock waves throughout the country. The deadly explosion rocked the small Texas community, killing 15 people and damaging a major portion of their town. Schools, nursing homes, apartment buildings and residences were torn apart and the debris field extended for blocks.
Federal, state, and county officials descended upon the town, blanketing the community with mobile command posts, logistical supplies and uniformed personnel. All who came did so to ensure safety, determine what happened, and provide hope for recovery to the town and its residents.
At the time of the explosion, many National Fallen Firefighter Foundation staff and I were in Phoenix, hosting the 2013 Survivors Conference. The conference is a cornerstone of our survivors programs that offers family members of the fallen access to many of our services, resources and life-skills training that will help them rebuild their lives.
At that moment, we didn't know the role we would be taking on in the lives of an entire community.
West, Texas bound
Upon learning of the explosion, we contacted the Texas Line of Duty Death Task Force, which serves as the foundation's Local Assistance State Team in Texas. The LAST program was created through a partnership with the Department of Justice to have response-ready resources in every state to assist departments when a LODD occurs.
Within hours of the explosion our teams were working together and we have been in West ever since.
Once notifications were made and individual assignments of family liaisons officers occurred, funeral arrangements were made and a memorial service was planned. While these activities were underway, the arduous task of investigating the incident, ensuring emergency response services were continually provided and town services were being restored were proceeding.
Numerous briefings, town hall meetings, emergency town council sessions and press conferences cluttered the weekly schedule of events in West.
For the foundation, our work intensified as time moved further and further away from the day of the explosion. Our focus moved from assisting with the memorial service at Baylor University to direct interaction with the families of the fallen. One-on-one sessions were scheduled and the tasks associated with securing death benefits and other resources were into full swing.
Stress first aid
As we finished the initial contacts with the families, our next priority became completing the necessary reports to the Department of Justice for the Public Safety Officers Benefits. Developing a solid Statement of Circumstance is a critical component when applying for the PSOB — and it is highly recommended that departments seek assistance from the NFFF to ensure the document meets the requirements of the program and is complete.
In addition to these activities, NFFF is providing emotional support to the families of the fallen as well as to the coworkers of the departments affected. Based on the lessons learned from our work in New York after Sept. 11, 2001 and in Charleston, S.C., following the Super Sofa Store fire, as well as the military's experience with post traumatic stress disorder, the foundation has developed a program of psychological and stress first aid.
To that end, we arranged for a team of fire service peers to visit with West department members and the other fire and EMS departments affected by the explosion. Having other fire service members who had experienced similar tragedies has been comforting and reassuring to the survivors.
Over the next couple of months, the foundation's efforts in West will stabilize and the long-term recovery components of our programs will kick into gear. These efforts will be the pathways that the survivors and co-workers affected by the explosion will follow just like so many others who have walked this path before them.
As the fire service returns to the daily attentions of the issues at hand, the NFFF will be there for the long haul. That is our role, our duty and most of all our responsibility. Your support in helping us to be there is always needed and appreciated.
About the author
Fire Chief Ronald Jon Siarnicki began his fire service career with the Prince George's County Fire/EMS Department in 1978 and with 24 years of fire, rescue and emergency medical services operational experience, he has progressed through the ranks to chief. In July 2001, Chief Siarnicki retired from the Prince George’s County Fire/EMS Department to take the position of executive director of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation. He is a graduate of the masters program, school of management and technology at the University of Maryland, University College and has a bachelor's of science degree in fire science management from UMUC. He is a certified Fire Officer IV, Firefighter Level III and State Emergency Medical Technician. Prior to joining the Prince George's County Fire/EMS Department, he served as a volunteer firefighter with the Monessen VFD Hose House 2 and currently serves with the United Communities VFD in Stevensville, Md. Chief Siarnicki can be reached at Ronald.Siarnicki@FireRescue1.com
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