ORLANDO, Fla. — Orlando firefighter Jimmy Reyes remembers heading to Pulse nightclub and hearing the shake in the dispatcher’s voice as gunfire echoed in the background. Upon arriving, he began categorizing the victims: Red meant “very critical.” Black meant deceased.
“It was more about, suck it up and keep going, just ball your emotions and your feelings together,” Reyes said, describing the mentality that allowed him to keep working despite the horror around him. “... But sometimes, deep down, it still hurts.”
The chaos of June 12, 2016, left lingering trauma for those who tried to save the lives of those wounded at Pulse, and led local agencies to reexamine the services and preparation available to local rescuers, with the Orlando Fire Department expanding mental health services and Orlando Regional Medical Center amplifying training protocols.
After the Pulse shooting, people began discussing trauma in ways they hadn’t before, as well as prioritizing the mental health needs of first responders after horrific incidents, said UCF Restores Executive Director Deborah C. Beidel.
UCF Restores, which provides clinical treatment to people with PTSD, responded to OFD two days after the shooting to arrange debriefing discussions, and worked with the Orlando Police Department to host trauma workshops and mental health evaluations. She said a “suck it up, buttercup” mentality exists among first responders, something she hopes to reverse.
“People get into the first responder profession because they have a love of humanity, and they want to be able to help others,” Beidel said. “If they have a hard heart and didn’t care about other people, they wouldn’t be a first responder.”
‘Stigma’ hinders healing
UCF Restores also offered its three-week intensive outpatient program, which joins exposure therapy with group treatment, to first responders who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder following the Pulse shooting.
“To ask people to not feel a thing after this type of horrific event, it’s just something that’s not human in nature,” she said, “and that’s the stigma we have to get around.”
More than 60 people who experienced trauma related to Pulse have received support from UCF Restores services, and the organization continues to provide support for firefighters.