Fire chaplains network offers emotional support to first responders in Pa. county

The network held its first training in Berks County last month with a focus on first responder suicides


Dan Kelly
Reading Eagle, Pa.

BERKS COUNTY, Pa. — In the days following the hanging deaths of two Albany Township children, religious leaders and mental health experts conducted a counseling session for first responders who witnessed the gruesome scene.

Many police and medical personnel involved with the incident were emotionally traumatized by what they saw in the basement of the modest, ranch-style home on Route 143.

Almost five months later, when they testified at last Wednesday's preliminary hearing for Lisa Snyder, the mother of the children who is charged with first- and third-degree murder in their deaths, even seasoned first responders were brought to tears by recounting in court what they witnessed that day.

It was the type of tragedy the Berks County Fire Chaplains Network was meant to address. In July, Kindall L. Wann, a Womelsdorf firefighter with a year of seminary under his belt, and a group of like-minded first responders met to form the network.

On Jan. 21, the network offered its first training for Berks fire chaplains and other emergency workers in the sanctuary of Womelsdorf's Zion Lutheran Church. The session, led by Jayne Miller, mental health education coordinator with Wellspan Health Philhaven, dealt with first responder suicides.

Even though it was the network's first crack at offering a training session, there were 38 in the audience.

"There has been a 300% increase in suicides among first responders from 2017 to 2019," Wann said. "The need is there."

Higher risk

Miller offered a frank and chilling explanation for why police, fire and ambulance personnel, just like soldiers, are statistically more prone to commit suicide.

"Our first responders are at a high risk because of something in their character," she said. "It's their fearlessness."

The courage emergency personnel embody may be the thing that allows them to take a final step toward suicide, whereas the average individual might reconsider and back away from the precipice.

Wann said he reached out to all fire departments, fire chiefs and ambulance companies.

"I told them who I was and that I wanted to put together a network of chaplains," he said.

There are now a dozen active members of the network, and 335 have joined its Facebook page.

Organization needed

What Wann found is that most departments don't have a designated chaplain, but do reach out to local pastors who have been filling the role on an ad hoc basis. Wann said he knew Chester, Lancaster and Lebanon counties all have an established group of chaplains they can call when needed.

In putting the Berks chaplains network together, Wann said he reached out to Jimmy Fannin Jr., a longtime firefighter and professional pastor who is chief of the Chaplains Corps of Lancaster County.

Fannin said the Lancaster County chaplains corps was officially formed in August 2018. The impetus for the creation of the corps, as is often the case, involved a tragedy. A gas explosion at a house in Millersville in 2017 had destroyed a house and killed a UGI gas worker.

"County radio had a hard time locating a chaplain," Fannin recalled. "The house had completely disintegrated and there were several UGI workers on the scene. UGI has a chaplain, but they were in another county. A fire company chaplain responded. Our mission is to serve first responders to take the weight off of the incident commander."

The chief in charge at a fire or other disaster must concentrate on the crisis at hand, and doesn't have time to console the loved ones of those injured or killed in an incident, Fannin said.

A simple role

"First, we bring physical things: water, food, towels," Fannin said. "But we also address the emotional. We're a Christian organization, no doubt about it, but we will serve anyone at any time regardless of if they are religious or their religious affiliation."

Fannin said the best encouragement he ever received was from a fire chief.

"He said when he saw my truck pull up he knew he didn't have to worry about the family at the scene," Fannin said. "Many firefighters tell us they don't know what it is, but they just feel better knowing we're around."

Fannin, who said he has been a volunteer firefighter in Lancaster for 28 years, shared the corps policies and procedures with Wann to help him get the Berks network organized properly.

"It's basically who we are and how we get things done," he said. "I've never been to an incident in Berks County, but I'm an evangelistic pastor so it's natural for me to want to spread the word."

The Lancaster chaplains corps has mutual aid agreements with many fire companies in its county. If one of those departments is called to a fire or accident scene, a corps chaplain also responds.

"I have 100 bottles of water in my car at all times," Fannin said. "We have a trailer with 300 bottles of water and other things if we need them."

'Never enough hands'

Dr. Ed Michalik, administrator of Berks County Mental Health/Developmental Disabilities, said he responded to the child murders in Albany Township and he and his staff ended up spending two weeks counseling the students, teachers and staff of Greenwich Elementary, where the older of the two victims, Conner Snyder, 8, was a student. Conner's little sister, Brinley Snyder, 4, was not in school at the time of their deaths.

Michalik said he also is a member of the Shillington Fire Company, and knows the value of a good chaplain from his perspective as a mental health professional and volunteer firefighter.

"I promote training for people all the time because I know when bad things happen there are never enough hands," Michalik said. "The people who get into this know they can't put a helmet on or a badge on and say they're a fire chaplain. You've got to know how to approach people from different angles when they're from different faiths. There are so many different faith communities in Berks County."

Michalik said he learned that lesson when he was tasked with accompanying a fire chaplain to the homes of two mothers who each had lost a child in the same fire the day before Mother's Day.

"It was one of the darkest things I've ever had to do," he said. "I sponsored a training afterward on death notifications. You shouldn't do that if you don't know what you're doing."

Never stop training

Michalik's emphasis on training for current and would-be fire chaplains in not lost on Wann.

Wann said he hopes the next training session will be in April and will feature autism. He said the lights and sirens and general mayhem around a fire or accident scene is just the kind of sensory overload that can upset the autistic.

"We've put together a working group with the Greater Reading Mental Health Alliance and hope to meet in March and hold the session sometime in April," Wann said. "We want people to know who we are and our vision for helping people on the fire ground."

Karen McNear is one of the newest members of the fire chaplains network. Even though she has been a volunteer firefighter for 27 years, she considers herself a fire chaplain trainee. She said she felt drawn to the role of fire chaplain, in part because of her long service as a firefighter in Womelsdorf and desire to give back to her community.

"Prior experience in my life led me to pursue this," McNear said. "I think I can help."

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©2020 the Reading Eagle (Reading, Pa.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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