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First responders Relieve Stress

PICHER, Okla. -- Emergency workers who were the first to respond to last weekend's deadly tornado were able to take part in a therapy session, allowing them to share their experiences and hopefully begin a healing process.

A team specializing in critical-incident stress management spent Thursday evening with about 20 local firefighters and emergency workers in peer-to-peer group therapy, helping them with their personal needs and providing tools for specific coping skills, said Gary Doty, director of the Oklahoma Crisis Response Network, which helps provide such teams to emergency workers.

State agencies represented on the team include EMSA, the Norman Fire Department, the Oklahoma City Fire Department and the Oklahoma City Police Department, said EMSA spokeswoman Tina Wells.

Doty said the response network was developed after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. It slowly disbanded, but reorganized a few years ago after other state tragedies.

The network is a cooperative effort of state response teams that include law enforcement, fire departments, social services, emergency medical teams, school districts and mental health agencies that provides the free service to emergency workers, Doty said.

"I think we gave them some tools to work with," Doty said. "The good thing about this is that we're there and we can help when we can. Some of these small communities don't have the access that some of the large communities do, so that's why I believe we were asked to help."

EMSA supervisor Mike McNeer traveled to Picher as part of the team. He said the response was very appreciative.

"We've done a lot of mostly in-house stuff, because that's why we created our team," McNeer said. "We never really had an opportunity or had the right set of circumstances where we could help out like we did."

McNeer said the purpose of the session was not to heal the workers, but to help show them ways to cope. If needed, the team can make referrals to mental health professionals.

"We talk about where they were, what they do, what their first conscious thought was at the time of the disaster. We try to normalize all of those feelings that you're going to have," McNeer said. "We give them some education to try and help them take care of themselves, and hopefully heal themselves. Our whole point is to give them the tools to try and help themselves."

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