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EMS seek post-tragedy closure
Patty Emberson's team has responded to some of the most tragic, high-profile cases of the past year in the region, the most publicized being the house fire on Oak Street last September that killed Allen, Jeffery and Joseph Wand. Pictured is a Sept. 2012 candlelight memorial service held in remembrance of the Wand boys.

Pancake Breakfast

Argyle EMS will hold its annual pancake breakfast to raise funds for the all-volunteer service. Members of the team will be stirring up buttermilk pancakes from scratch and serving them fresh off the griddle.

- When: 7:30 a.m. to noon Sunday, June 9

- Where: Argyle-Adams Fire House, 103 N. Broad St.

ARGYLE - "You have to hold a lot in," reflects Patty Emberson, who has served 12 years on the Argyle Volunteer EMS Service.

It's a silent aftershock of tragedy. Anger, guilt and gruesome images can linger a long time for first responders to fatal crime or accident scenes.

But bound by confidentiality, these emergency services workers - often volunteers with full-time jobs to return to - have few opportunities to talk openly about what they've seen or done.

"You can't come home and talk to your family and friends about it," Emberson said.

Her team has responded to some of the most tragic, high-profile cases of the past year in this region, the most publicized being the house fire on Oak Street last September that killed three young boys.

Argyle EMS' annual pancake breakfast fundraiser on Sunday is an uplifting gathering for an organization that's had an otherwise unusually tough year, along with other first-response teams in the area.

Besides the loss of three young lives in the house fire - a tragedy that shook the whole community and beyond - Argyle EMS was also called this spring to transport an Argyle man who died from injuries he sustained during a fight with his brother.

Although Argyle EMS wasn't called to the scene, the at-random triple homicide of three beloved farmers in Wiota Township in April happened just a few miles south of Argyle. Also nearby, an 8-year-old boy was killed in mid-May in a skid-steer loader accident.

"They've been beat up pretty bad over there this year," Rev. Dr. William Wagner said of first responders in the Argyle area. A retired pastor in Beloit, he leads the Stateline Critical Incident Stress Management Team.

The program, SCICMT for short, is sponsored by Beloit Health System and is a volunteer-run service that provides "debriefings" for emergency service workers suffering from residual trauma in the wake of tragedy - usually accidents or crime scenes with fatalities.

Argyle EMS personnel have participated in at least two debriefings in the past year. The SCICMT program typically does nine to 14 debriefings per year in a region that encompasses the counties of Walworth, Rock, Green and Lafayette, Wagner said. Each debriefing is confidential and led by a team of two or three people trained in emergency response work, including a mental health professional.

Diffuse and Discuss

The history of debriefings goes back to the 1970s, says Mary Austin, EMS coordinator at Monroe Clinic.

"We began realizing that when rescuers respond to these critical situations, it's almost a (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder)," Austin said. "These images would stay with people for a long time and be intrusive into their life, their family life."

She stresses that debriefings are not meant to erase feelings but to process them in a safe environment.

"It's a way to diffuse, discuss the situation," she said.

The feelings can be especially intense for emergency workers living in sparsely populated, rural areas and in small towns like Argyle, according to Wagner

"They could show up on a call that's a family member," he said.

The emotions first responders experience vary - helplessness, guilt, anger - and they often manifest in a physical dysfunction such as diarrhea, insomnia and loss of appetite, Wagner said.

"A lot of times, part of the crisis is also spiritual. Why did God allow this to happen? Why did this happen to good people?" he said. "And sometimes it's even survivor's guilt: 'It should have been me.'

"They think they maybe could've done more but in reality they did everything they were trained to do," he said.

That's a feeling Argyle EMS member Dave Phillipson knows well. A 30-year veteran on the EMS team, he was one of the first responders to the fatal house fire last September.

"We go and do our job, and then afterward you start thinking, 'Should I have done this or should I have done that?' Generally speaking, you wouldn't have changed a thing," Phillipson said. But the thoughts still linger, he added.

Debriefings help, he and Emberson agree.

"That is our chance to talk openly about it," Emberson said. "It kind of gives us some closure."