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Helping First Responders On The Front Lines Of The Surfside Disaster

Deborah Beidel, executive director of UCF Restores. Photo: UCF
Deborah Beidel, executive director of UCF Restores. Photo: UCF

Two weeks after the partial collapse of the Champlain Towers South condominium building in Surfside, officials have stopped the search for survivors. 

UCF Restores, a nonprofit organization that helps people with trauma-related concerns, recently traveled down to Miami to offer their support to first responders at the site.

UCF Restores is a partner of the Florida Firefighters Safety and Health Collaborative, where they accompany first responders in disasters and provide peer support and mental health counseling. Beidel says they got the call from the organization and were deployed when they were needed. 

“It was just a matter of when we would be helpful and not in the way.”

Beidel and two other members of UCF Restores traveled to Surfside. She says that seeing the size of the pile was overwhelming. 

“There were eight search and rescue teams from throughout Florida who went down to assist in this, and for many of them, they had never dealt with a traumatic event of this magnitude,” says Beidel. 

“They were used to doing search and rescue after hurricanes or fires or things like that.” 

Beidel says she knew it would not be a long deployment for the UCF Restores team. 

“This was what we call psychological first aid, which is just to help people in their immediate distress, help them find resources, help them learn to manage that stress, and allow them then to go on to do what they needed to do.”

The pandemic and the approach of Tropical Storm Elsa further complicated the Search and Rescue effort in Surfside. Beidel says dealing with a multitude of traumatic events at once can add to the stress for first responders. 

One of the training methods that UCF Restores employs is peer support. This is where staff members, such as veteran firefighters, can help other firefighters who are experiencing trauma. Beidel says that it’s sometimes easier for a first responder to talk to someone who can relate to what they are going through in a way that a clinical professional cannot. 

However, Beidel emphasizes that when UCF Restores responds to traumatic events like the collapse in Surfside, they do not expect to counsel everyone all at once. She explains that it’s OK to feel fine one day, to not feel fine, or to experience triggers of the situation days later. 

“Everybody responds to traumatic events differently. And that's the message that we try to get out to people.”

As the teams in Surfside switch to recovery efforts and UCF Restores has returned to Orlando, Beidel says they will continue to be available to people at the site. 

“At this stage, the goal is to just let people talk to us, and we listen. And so we listen to various things that people would say, the experiences that they would have, and just sort of supported what they were doing. But the goal is to just let them tell us what they want to tell us at this time and let them know that we're there.”