Garland Firefighters Offer Support to First Responders at Florida Condo Collapse

The death toll in the collapse rose to 95 Tuesday

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It's been nearly three weeks since a condominium building collapsed in Surfside, Florida. At least 95 people were killed, 14 are still unaccounted for and it's still unclear what caused the building to fall.

First responders have been working around the clock to remove concrete and debris as they've retrieved remains and continue to search for people's loved ones.

It's a traumatic environment that can take a toll for all involved, including the firefighters who continue to dig through the rubble.

“They’re under tremendous stress," Garland fire Capt. JD Schulgen said.

The 36-year veteran, along with 17-year veteran Lt. Matthew Brawner, works at Garland's Fire Station 6. They spent the past week in Florida as peer counselors offering support to their fellow firefighters.

"While they’re dealing with the collapse, they’re still making calls for suicide, homicide, car wrecks all the things that we do as firefighters and so it’s the accumulative effect the stress that happens in spite of and in addition to the Surfside collapse," Schulgen said.

The Garland Fire Department has about 14 firefighters, including Schulgen and Brawner, who are trained to respond to high-stress events.

"We were tasked, with people from all over the country, to go down in several waves of peer supporters to help those firefighters work through the Surfside collapse," Schulgen said.

The department said it was called upon by the International Association of Firefighters to help aid in peer support after the Metro-Dade Firefighters Association in Florida asked for assistance.

“Sometimes talking is the best way to process things or the best way to deal with what you’re going through," Brawner said. "And in this area, when something is going on, you tend to focus in on your work and you focus in completely 100% and you don’t process things."

They said it can be difficult for firefighters to talk about what they experience in the field with loved ones at home, but it's easier to let it out with someone who works in the same field.

"Some people just wanted to talk about baseball, some people wanted to talk about Texas, some people wanted to talk about our fire department here and then other things would come out," Brawner said. "The real things people wanted to talk about, without even realizing they wanted to talk about it, and that’s how the conversation just naturally went."

Schulgen said once someone lets their guard down, the stories start to come out.

"One firefighter, we were talking about intrusive images, about things that you can’t really control -- they’re just in your mind. And he went back to a run he made several years ago and said he had the same thing happen to me and so we could talk through that a little bit and provided him with some local resources in the Miami area that he could avail himself to or even his family if they needed help to try to work through those difficult times," he said.

The two Garland firefighters spent time at the site of the tower collapse.

"It’s somber, that’s a holy place," Schulgen said. "People lost their lives there that were on vacation, they were just there to enjoy the weekend and be at the beach, I couldn’t think of anything worse that could happen."

One of the victims recovered in the rubble was the 7-year-old daughter of a firefighter. According to officials, her father was not part of the crew who found her body.

“Children should always outlive their parents and I couldn’t imagine the emotion he went through," Schulgen said. "One of the things that is common in peer support is my mind can’t forget what my eyes have seen, so those images for him will be there forever. He’ll never have those opportunities to share with his little girl.”

The Peer Support Team from Garland has also helped in other traumatic events such as the Walmart shooting in El Paso and the mass shooting in Midland in 2019.

"We do this job because love it. We want to serve and help people and the greatest call that Matt and I, and others on the team, have is to help our own, to make sure that they’re doing OK, to make sure that once this is all over, that they have resources that they need to continue to do the job that they’re going to do," Schulgen said. "We never close down, we never go on holiday, fire stations are always open we want them to be the best they can be for their people, their communities."

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