Juneau cops help officers at Ground Zero

PHOTO/James MacPherson/AJOC
JUNEAU -- Juneau police officer Kim Martin knows the stress cops and emergency-services workers face in the line of duty.

Martin and fellow officers Jerry Nankervis and Paul Comolli recently spent a week at the World Trade Center site, helping their colleagues deal with the devastation and anguish at ground zero. The police officers were joined by Ketchikan firefighter Dave Hull and Juneau psychologist Destiny Sargeant.

The five Southeast Alaskans spent several days at the 17 acres of steaming, smoking rubble that has become the largest crime scene, and the largest construction site, in the world. About 50,000 cops, firefighters and construction workers don hard hats and respirators and pass through security checkpoints every day to work in an area the size of downtown Juneau.

The five Alaskans are local members of a team trained in critical incident stress management, a program designed to help professionals who deal with trauma.

"A cop goes to car wreck after car wreck and never gets to unload any personal stress," said Comolli. "Families are usually surrounded by family members, church and all that. People never look behind them and see the first responders who are dealing with all the horror."

The daily stress of police and rescue work can lead to depression, alcohol abuse, domestic violence and suicide. Members of the Southeast team were worried about the pressure their counterparts in New York City face - working grueling shifts at the World Trade Center site. They volunteered to spend a week in New York.

"Our team personally interacted with 1,000 people," said Sargeant. "They’re pretty gray and depleted now and we came in and were not shy."

New York police officers recently eased back from 18-hour shifts, seven days a week, to 12-hour shifts with one day a week off, said Sargeant. Given the pressure, it’s no surprise fighting broke out on the site last week.

"They think the floodgates are about to open with these guys," Martin said.

Team members said they walked around the site talking to workers, introducing themselves, asking how they were doing and offering information about dealing with stress.

"Sometimes it’s just a reminder to tell people to be good to themselves," said Martin.

Team members wore shirts with the word POPPA across the back - for Police Organization Providing Peer Assistance.

"I’d say, ’I’m not a clinician, I’m not a boss, I’m a grunt like you from 4,500 miles away.’ They’d open up," Comolli said.

Martin said team members asked recovery workers if they were having trouble sleeping, were cranky at home or were having disturbing dreams.

"It’s nice to have somebody tell you it’s normal," Martin said. " We’re safe, we’re from Alaska. They can tell us, ’Yeah, I’m yelling at my wife.’ "

The stoicism of some cops was chilling. Others were receptive.

"It’s like a scary room," Comolli said. "You crack the door open and peek inside - that’s what we’re doing. If they come in for counseling, that’s like throwing the door open."

Team members had to work a fine line.

"We didn’t want to bring their defenses down too much," he added."We’ve been there. We know what it’s like to have to finish your shift."

One rewarding moment came when they spent time talking about Alaska and joking around with a group of firefighters taking a break.

"When we left this one guy said ’That was the best 15 minutes I’ve had in the past six weeks,’ " Martin said.

11/05/2001 - 8:00pm