A group of Santa Clarita Valley mental health clinicians said they’re offering their services to SCV firefighters who lent a hand overseas in the search and rescue efforts following the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that hit Turkey and Syria early on Feb. 6, killing an estimated 50,000-plus people.
According to Ellen Bradley-Windell, clinical director and co-founder of Valencia Relationship Institute, who’s a licensed clinical social worker, her organization places a focus on serving first responders and their families. They work specifically with the Los Angeles County Fire Department and the Los Angeles Fire Department.
“During the deployment, we’ve been on nightly video calls with L.A. County Fire Department fire chiefs, team leads and 81 first-responder families whose loved ones are over in Turkey,” she told The Signal during a phone call while local firefighters were still in Turkey. “The two biggest USAR (Urban Search and Rescue) teams representing the United States are L.A. County and Fairfax, Virginia. They’re sharing a makeshift compound.”
Bradley-Windell’s son, Jake Windell, who’s a firefighter-paramedic in the USAR unit for L.A. County Fire Station 107 in Canyon Country, went out to Turkey on Feb. 8 with one of his captains at the station, canine search specialist Mike Toepfer.
Toepfer told The Signal that he also brought six rescue canines with him, and that other SCV firefighters who accompanied them included Capt. Moises Gallardo of Station 81 in Agua Dulce, Battalion 22 Chief Michael Goudchaux and firefighter Michael Cooksey of Station 150 in Canyon Country, Capt. Adam Bradley of Station 111 in Santa Clarita, and camp Foreman Josh Domel of L.A. County Fire Department Camp 14 in Santa Clarita.
Windell said that upon his arrival, the place looked like it had been “wiped off the map.”
“You realize that there aren’t many people to rescue,” he said, “that there aren’t many survivors of this earthquake.”
Toepfer spoke with The Signal about what he experienced.
“It always brings things into perspective when you see a tragedy like this,” he said. “It rings close to home because there’s obviously that looming ominous threat of a major earthquake in Southern California. So, it makes you think about what life would be like if that hit our area, and kind of makes you want to prepare so that you’re ready for when it does.”
Toepfer said the devastation over there was worse than he imagined. He said that while he and his team were tasked with finding lives and bringing closure to families who lost loved ones by identifying those who didn’t survive the disaster, they also surveyed buildings for building safety.
“We did over 6,000 building surveys,” he said. “We drove around in about three small groups, all packed in a truck, and drove every street in Adıyaman — the city that we were working in — and did building surveys where we checked the buildings for either minor or major damage, or to see if they were completely destroyed, and we packaged all that information in a nice clean package. We used GPS applications to plot everything, everything is color coordinated, and we handed it over to the Turkish government.”
And while this work is what Toepfer and others signed up to do, he said that it can most definitely take a toll on one’s mental well-being.
“It depends on what kind of trauma you were exposed to, whether you were seeing secondary victims or primary victims,” he said. “But all of it is going to hit someone differently. You know, someone could be affected by just seeing the damage. Or someone could have seen a dead body and it might affect them more than it would affect somebody else.”
Windell, who said Turkey was his sixth search and rescue deployment, added, “We love our job. None of us would sign up for this job if we didn’t love the idea of helping others, being a civil servant, being that provider, that fixer. But that does come with a little bit of trauma. We experience things, and we see things that sometimes our brain can’t comprehend.”
He said he’s disturbed by the fact that the mental impact of the job has often been overshadowed by the physical wear and tear on a firefighter throughout his or her career. In fact, Windell was the catalyst that led to his mom and Valencia Relationship Institute offering dedicated services to first responders.
Bradley-Windell and her business partner, April de Higes, who’s a licensed marriage and family therapist, started Valencia Relationship Institute in 2014, initially providing individual, marriage and family counseling to children, teens and adults in the SCV. In 2016, they began seeing first responders in direct response to Windell’s experiences on the job, providing outside support to first responders dealing with trauma-related situations affecting their personal and professional lives.
“Our group, Valencia Relationship Institute, has been fortunate enough to be trained as culturally competent clinicians, directly by the L.A. County Fire Department’s Local 1014 behavioral director, Dr. Steve Froehlich,” Bradley-Windell said. “As mental health professionals, we can speak the different cultural languages of both the L.A. County Fire Department and the L.A. Fire Department. Just knowing their specific terminology related to their work schedules and ranks of service or positions in their respective departments means the world to them.”
One of the things Bradley-Windell and the group of clinicians at Valencia Relationship Institute learned was that some firefighters don’t want to hear, “Thank you for your service.”
“They want to come in as normal people,” she offered. “They want to be able to fall apart, cry their eyes out and not have to take care of the therapist.”
Chris Sperber, who’s a firefighter-paramedic at Station 107 and Windell’s squad partner, said he began going to therapy because of what he’s seen on the job.
Sperber said that while he couldn’t imagine what Windell and the others went through in Turkey, he did speak with Windell regularly while he was out there.
“They were expected to land there and try to find people and save them from the rubble,” he told The Signal during a phone interview. “So, they’re going around these big rubble piles, trying to jackhammer large pieces of cement and concrete, and crawl in the holes and — in my head, it’s got to be in the back of their minds — worrying about aftershocks while they’re in these crevices trying to save people. It’s got to be mentally taxing.”
Sperber said he currently sees a therapist on an as-needed basis, and added that he does so on his own, not at the suggestion of the department.
“I’m trying to get us to seek therapy for our profession,” he said, “but it’s nothing that’s mandatory through our job at this point. I think that’s something we’re trying to gear toward, which would be good to see. But yeah, as of right now, it’s just seeking therapy on our own, and our own peers trying to encourage each other to seek therapy because I think the culture doesn’t necessarily embrace it as much as it should. And we’re just trying to change that culture — to not being ashamed of seeking therapy and it just being a normal thing that you do on a regular basis.”
Bradley-Windell added, “Therapy is seen as a weakness for first responders, because they’re supposed to be running into burning buildings, saving lives with medical calls, protecting our community, and they’re always supposed to be the heroes. And when they see devastation on a daily basis, they’re just supposed to shrug it off.”
As a firefighter-paramedic, Sperber goes on about 10 to 15 calls a day.
“That adds up,” he said. “All the different traumas and sick people and sick kids. And I work in Santa Clarita and live in Santa Clarita, so there’s always the dynamic of seeing somebody you know or somebody’s neighbor or your neighbor. Those are always my sticking points — when I seek therapy — seeing somebody you know.”
One of the common questions he gets that he dislikes most is, “What’s the worst thing you’ve seen?”
“It’s just a rude question,” he said. “It’s a tough one because that’s when you’re off duty at that point, and whether it’s a family member, a friend, a reporter or whoever, it’s like, ‘Oh, you’re a firefighter. What’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen?’ Because they’re generally curious, but it’s like, ‘Seriously, you really want me to go through this right now?’”
Bradley-Windell said that many of the first responders she and her colleagues see have presented signs of anxiety and depression, and much of it, she added, is just day-to-day work on the job.
“I can’t even believe the calls my son goes on,” she said. “But it’s the gradual increase in suicide rates, and substance and alcohol abuse that’s really tearing them and their families apart. These statistics kind of lit a fire under us, and made us want to see how we could be a part of their recovery, to help these men and women be more proactive with their mental health.”
She also added that the stressors and the trauma for her son have changed as events in his life changed. When he became a husband and a father, for example, going on calls where a spouse died or showing up on the scene of a traffic collision where children were involved were much more emotional for him.
Toepfer acknowledged both the problems with mental illness among firefighters and what he feels is a changing culture among the group, which he hopes will continue to evolve.
“It’s greatly important to seek help,” he said, “especially if you’re starting to see signs of depression or anxiety or increased stress. That’s on all of us at the station — to look out for one another and look for signs of stress, anxiety, depression. It’s on all of us to help better aid that healing process.”
SCV firefighters who were in Turkey returned to the U.S. last week. Windell said he’s proud of the work he and his fellow team members accomplished. He’s also proud of the fact that, for the mission, the team had put mental health in the forefront for what he believed was the first time he’d seen it.
“And rightfully so,” he said. “It should be at the forefront of all of our conversations.”