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Stress Management Following Harvey Co. Mass Shooting

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Deborah Shaar
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Harvey County law enforcement agencies are entering the healing phase of recovery following last week’s deadly shooting rampage.

Counseling sessions, one-on-one de-briefings and after-action agency reviews are underway.

As KMUW’s Deborah Shaar reports, the focus is on making sure those who were on the front lines of the crisis are getting the help they need.

Three dispatchers were on duty in the 911 communications center at the Harvey County Sheriff’s Office last Thursday evening--typical staffing for a weekday.

When the first shooting happened on the west side of Newton, the dispatchers handled the call and sent help.

But minutes later, as the gunman made his way to Excel Industries in Hesston and began opening fire, it was clear: This was a mass shooting.

Calls started pouring in to 911.

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Don Gruver, the 911 director for Harvey County.

"I know for a fact that we had approximately two dozen calls from in and around Excel in a matter of about 10 minutes," says Don Gruver, the 911 director for Harvey County.

With his dispatchers working at a frenzied pace, and calls stacking up, Gruver started taking calls in his office.

The assistant director and a secretary went to the call center to help with law enforcement radios and the influx of incoming phone calls.

"They actually got calls from people who not only said, 'I’ve seen people shot,' but people called and said, 'I have been shot myself' and were trying to find out where to get help," Gruver says.

As the incident escalated and word spread, every off-duty day and evening shift 911 dispatcher showed up.

Supervisor Monica Leonard was at home and rushed to work knowing her staff wouldn’t have time to send out a call for help to off-duty people.

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911 day shift supervisor Monica Leonard.

"You just do what you have to do and you don’t think about it," she says. "It’s when you stop later and you think about it, that’s when things start to unravel. But at that moment, you’re just focused on what’s need to be done."

The dispatch team played a critical role directing the first responders and making sure enough law enforcement and ambulances from surrounding counties were on the way. Gruver says the dispatchers did a great job of processing important information quickly.

"Excel is a very large complex, and trying to understand where in that large plant the people were and knowing that responders weren’t going to be able to just rush right in there until they knew that the scene was safe," he says. "It still came about pretty quickly, and people got help and got the care they needed."

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The emergency response was quick and organized because the sheriff’s office recently joined other law enforcement agencies and school district personnel for active shooter training. They were prepared.

Gruver says the dispatch team also used a new program for the first time, which coordinated the fire and EMS response and sent a large number of ambulances to the scene. These efforts, he says, made a big difference in the outcome.

"The amazing thing is that were 14 people treated and transported from the scene to the hospital and they’re all still alive. I think that speaks volumes for the responders and our agency, including the dispatchers telling people where help was needed, directing responders and getting them going," Gruver says.

In the days following the mass shooting, the investigation was underway and there was now time for those dispatchers and first responders to get the help they needed.

Jason Reynolds, chaplain and director of support services for the Harvey County Sheriff’s Office in Newton, Kansas, activated a community chaplain response team of seven chaplains and 11 volunteers. They reported to the incident command center in Hesston to help with logistical support and stress management counseling.

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Director of Support Services and chaplain for Harvey County Sheriff’s Office Jason Reynolds.

Reynolds says first responders often suffer from prolonged exposure to trauma during a crisis and need help unloading emotional stress.

"When they come into a situation, it’s usually not a good situation and they can see and experience some pretty awful things," he says. "So that’s what 'critical-incident stress' is there to do: help them begin talking about it, because the more they talk about it the quicker the healing takes place."

One-on-one debriefings between the chaplains and first responders took place immediately. Individual and group counseling sessions are ongoing and will continue as needed.

"Right now, my primary responsibility is our chaplains have been trying to stay present in different departments where responders work and making sure that we are touching base with those who were on scene—making sure that they’re handling their stress well," he says.

It’s a big job, because the shootings happened at multiple locations in Harvey County, and many of the responders came from agencies outside of Hesston and Newton. Reynolds says he wants to make sure everyone works through this crisis, because acute stress or post-traumatic stress disorder may not show up right away.

"We are also watching for signs and symptoms and educating them on what they need to watch for. Maybe then we can do some one-and-ones with them or be able to get them resources to be able to help," he says.

Reynolds and his team helped coordinate counseling services for victims’ families, Excel employees and local schools. At the incident command center, the team also took care of basic needs; they made sure there was enough water and food available at meal times.

About 186 federal, state and local law enforcement agents rotated shifts at the mass shooting scene last weekend. Reynolds says the community support during this intense situation was overwhelming.

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"Hesston Strong" has become a rallying cry for the community.

"Businesses stepped up and provided food free of charge to all of the responders. We always had water donated, we had coffee donated. We had just exactly what we needed throughout the whole thing," he says. "That’s just reminiscent of what Harvey County, and Hesston specifically, is all about. We saw that same response during the tornado."

The rural community of Hesston, with about 3700, not only rebuilt but grew stronger after it took a direct hit by a powerful tornado 26 years ago.

Reynolds says he’s already seeing that same community strength now. One sign: The community adopted the rallying cry of “Hesston Strong” almost immediately following this latest crisis.

"We’re not used to having the resources that maybe the metropolitan areas have, so we have to rally together. We have to come together to be able to meet the need and get everybody back where they need to be," Reynolds says. “'Hesston Strong'” [is] true now, but it’s always been that way. What’s going to happen here in about a month, is you’re going to see Hesston stronger."

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Follow Deborah Shaar on Twitter @deborahshaar

To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.

Deborah joined the news team at KMUW in September 2014 as a news reporter. She spent more than a dozen years working in news at both public and commercial radio and television stations in Ohio, West Virginia and Detroit, Michigan. Before relocating to Wichita in 2013, Deborah taught news and broadcasting classes at Tarrant County College in the Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas area.