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‘It’s been a challenging road': Calif. FFs reflect on first anniversary of ballroom shooting

Most of the first Monterey Park firefighters on the scene of the Star Ballroom Dance Studio shooting had less than five years on the job

By Ryan Carter

MONTEREY PARK, Calif. — Through most of his career, Monterey Park Fire Chief Matthew Hallock would absorb the news of mass shootings with the discerning eye of a first responder, but with understandable detachment.

His department trained. He cared. His instinct was to think “What if it happened here.” But year after year, shooting after shooting, they never did.

Small suburban L.A. town. Tight-knit, peaceful community. That nightmare could not possibly come to Monterey Park. And then, on a celebratory evening in his city, the dispatch came: “It happened,” he said.

‘The Trauma Bucket’

Hallock’s small department of firefighters and paramedics — on the first night of a 48-hour shift — would respond to a scene that up until then was the kind that only happened in other places. Eighteen of his staff were on the scene that night, ranging from a seasoned veteran with decades of experience to the youngest with only three months on the job. Most had less than five years of service.

They went in. They encountered death. They were faced with a scene that even the most seasoned veterans might never see in an entire career.

[RELATED: 10 killed, 10 wounded in shooting near L.A. after Lunar New Year fest; suspect dead]

They did their jobs. They tended to survivors. Within 27 minutes, they’d treated and transported anyone they could to hospitals.

All the while, they were dealing with an awareness that a shooter was still on the loose.

“I was very concerned about that level of trauma that night,” he said, adding he was acutely aware of elevated risks of suicide among first responders.

Hallock, who started as a reserve in the fire service in 1994, describes it as the “trauma bucket.”

After repeatedly working tough public crime scenes and other challenges in the field, it takes most first responders several years to fill that emotion.

“These young firefighters,” said Hallock, “filled it up that night.”

‘Coming back’

By Jan. 31, 2023, four members of the crew had not returned to work. At the time, it was unclear if they would ever come back, given the horrifying scene they’d encountered.

City Manager Rob Bow even apologized for not intervening sooner in responding to the emotional needs of the staff.

“The trauma that these first responders experience in words of our fire chief, Matt Hallock, could cause everlasting effects leading to an end of a career,” he said at the time. “I would like to publicly apologize to the fire service community and our very own fire department for not intervening sooner, as the dialogue continued throughout the first week.”

Support did come, though. Many firefighters would return to work after four days. But they would return to counseling and other resources. That has continued to be available throughout the year.

Two of the four who didn’t initially return have since come back to the department, Hallock said.

As the one-year anniversary of the shootings is marked with a vigil at City Hall on Sunday, Hallock was reflective.

“It’s been a challenging road,” he said, “and every day is a little better.”

[RELATED: Calif. city officials apologize for delayed recognition for mass shooting response]

Hallock himself was hit hard.

He’s from a generation of firefighters who began their years training for mass casualty events — earthquakes, for example, and hazardous materials situations.

Active shooters were not so common then. The days when so called SWAT Medics would be carrying handguns to “hot zones” were a thing of the imagination, Hallock said. Not reality. Not yet.

Now, officers get training, and drills, and more training. And when the worst happens, they dl their jobs, he said. “You get in, and you start managing, and you do the best you can to make sure your community is taken care of.”

Even with preparation, even with news reports shootings airing practically daily, no one can truly be 100 percent ready, he said.

“It’s been a process for me,” he said.

The visit

As Hallock noted, firefighters often don’t see the “the other side” of a call. During most shifts, they respond. They transport. They do the work. And then they leave. They go on to the next call for service.

On Jan. 21, 2023, they became part of the story, though. They were impacted, too.

That’s why a recent visit from the family of Diana Tom was so impactful, Hallock said.

Tom was among the injured they transported. She clung to life for 24 hours at LAC+USC Medical Center before becoming the 11th person to lose their life in the mass shooting. She died from critical injuries on Sunday, Jan. 22.

On Jan. 13, Tom’s family visited the Monterey Park fire station. They shared sincere gratitude. They acknowledged what the firefighters did that day. And they shared moments of Tom’s life.

For Tom’s family, it was the culmination of a year of healing — the first year.

For Hallock and the firefighters and paramedics he leads, it was a moment that brought the year to a kind of full circle.

“Just them expressing gratitude to the firefighters, that brought it all together. This is why we do what we do. A year later, to see this family so impacted and yet they took time out of their day to talk to us” he said.

“That meant a lot.”

It was a kind of missing piece for Hallock, who said that among the crew who met with the family were two firefighters on duty the day of the shooting.

These days, Hallock is mindful of his counterparts who must respond to their own mass shootings across the country. And there were hundreds after Monterey Park. He found himself reaching out to fellow chiefs to offer support after tragedies. He got similar calls of support, he said, after his city’s tragedy.

Hallock planned to attend Sunday’s candlelight vigil. He’ll be remembering. He’ll be listening.

He finds solace in the fact that even amid tragedy, there were survivors.

“Lives were lost that night,” he said. “But lives were saved, too.”

[RELATED: 18 Calif. FFs, medics continue to recover after dance hall shooting]

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