Manassas Police Officer John D. Conner III's colleagues were devastated when he was struck down by murderer Roy Bruce Smith's bullet last year. To help the officers deal with their grief and pain, a special Prince William County counseling team was brought in shortly after the tragedy.
The Critical Incident Stress Debriefing team began its work in 1984. It responds to accidents and other situations involving police officers, firefighters and rescue personnel, providing an ear and shoulder for professionals who are trained to ignore their own emotions, said Cpl. Stephen G. Reed, the team's administrative coordinator.
"Dealing with the death of a fellow worker in the line of duty is often one of the most traumatic events that will ever happen to a police officer," Reed said. "Police have the responsibility for the safety of society and when you lose one of your own, it lets you know how vulnerable you are."
The debriefing team, one of the first to be formed in Virginia and one of 110 nationwide, includes more than 40 volunteers from the Prince William County Police Department, the county's volunteer and paid Fire and Rescue Service personnel and Community Services Board mental health clinicians, authorities said. The team has worked with about 1,400 people, and held 95 debriefings, including two after incidents involving multiple casualties.
The focus of the debriefings, which usually occur shortly after personnel come in from stressful situations, is to let the rescuers and police officers know that it is normal for them to experience some stress, said Capt. Scott Davis of the fire service.
"Even though we train people to deal with situations, they are still human beings," Davis said. "We let them know it is normal for them to have those feelings. A lot of what we do is preventive; though someone might not have a problem now, we work to help them defuse stress so it doesn't build up to something that can cause them problems down the road."
Besides meeting with Conner's co-workers on the Manassas Police Department last summer, the group went to Fauquier County last September after a firetruck was hit by an Amtrak passenger train in Catlett, killing two volunteer firefighters. They also went to Fauquier after Sgt. Charles Murray was killed when a train hit his car near the scene of the accident involving the firefighters, authorities said.
Team members said that in some ways, Murray's death was more traumatic for co-workers than Conner's murder because it was an accident that occurred as he traveled around the county delivering warrants. Conner was shot to death as he was responding to a complaint, court records show.
"Line-of-duty deaths, like Conner's, are always hard, but sometimes easier to deal with because the officers might feel that because of the death a life was saved," Reed said. "But unexpected, senseless death, like accidents, can be harder to deal with."
Fire Chief Selby Jacobs commended the program for giving emergency workers "an opportunity to vent frustrations and emotions all of us in this business have to deal with from time to time." He said the program has been especially helpful for firefighters experiencing their first disasters.
Reed, whose wife, Carol, a Prince William County civilian dispatcher, is also on the team, said the program works best because of the cooperative effort between peer counselors and the mental health personnel, who are trained in stress management procedures.
"The peers are just there to say to them, 'Look, I know what you are going through because I have been there myself,' " Reed said. "But we don't have the kind of training the paid professionals do, so that's where the Community Services Board comes in."
Rita Romano, emergency services program coordinator for the Community Services Board, said the police and fire officials on the team used to be dependent on the clinicians from her agency to provide counseling. But as they have become more comfortable in the role and more educated on stress management procedures, the clinicians have been freed to work more with the public and are usually called in now in major events.