Northwest Iowa Critical Stress Management meeting

Northwest Iowa Critical Stress Management team members Barb Vermeer and Shawn Scholten open the team’s Nov. 2 meeting at Sioux Center Health.

SIOUX CENTER—A 10-member team has spent more than a decade working behind the scenes to support first responders and help them continue answering the 911 calls that come in.

Specifically, the Northwest Iowa Critical Incident Stress Management team was formed in 2010 to provide a debriefing service for first responders from Sioux, Lyon, Osceola, O’Brien and Plymouth counties who were involved with critical incidents.

Examples of critical incidents include a death in the line of duty, death by vehicle accident, death of a pedestrian, drowning, multicasualty incidents with major traumas and /or death and significant events involving children.

“These are events that cause unusually strong emotional reactions that have the potential to interfere with the ability to function normally,” said founding CISM team member Shawn Scholten of Sioux Center, who is a counselor and co-founder of the Creative Living Center in Rock Valley. “I say this at each debriefing I’m a part of — ‘You are all normal people with normal reactions to an abnormal event.’ It’s our goal to reach out and provide some tools to help work through those reactions.”

The CISM team is made up of volunteers representing backgrounds to support such a debriefing service. Besides Scholten, other team members representing mental health are Erica Wassenaar, Jeremy Koerselman and Jean Ellis. Other members are Sioux Center firefighter Benj Van Donge, Sioux Center firefighter and police officer Kelli Willet, nurses Nancy Renes and Barb Vermeer, Orange City firefighter Dan Roghair and retired emergency management services personal Sandi Vande Berg.

When a critical trauma happens, first responders from the CISM’s coverage area can reach out to the team to request a debriefing, which the team prefers to set up within three or four days after the incident occurred.

Two to four CISM team members lead the debriefing session that delves into what individuals can do to help them process their emotions from the incident.

Debriefings are encouraged but not required to be attended and sometimes not all those directly involved with an incident can or are willing to come to the debriefing.

Scholten said the CISM team members leading each session encourage sharing of the tools learned and looking at work policies for coverage of further counseling sessions for one-on-one support.

“It’s not easy for our own team members, sometimes we have secondary trauma from some of what we hear and are exposed to. It can be graphic and hard, but we continue to see this service as a need for our area,” Scholten said, noting it’s not just her almost three decades of counseling that keeps her on the team. “Not everybody wants to do things like this. I believe I have a gift of mercy and have been equipped to have the capacity to do this so I want to utilize my gift out in the community.”

Van Donge, who is also one of the founding members of the CISM team, has seen the benefit of his team’s debriefing sessions.

“Many of the first responder positions in rural America are volunteer positions,” Van Donge said. “We take pride in that and we’re fortunate to have what we do, but the person who calls 911 — we’re going to them probably on their worst day in their life so for us as first responders to be able to be there for them, we need to be able to be in the right frame of mind as well.”

Before a decade ago, first responders had to reach out to communities like Sioux City or Sioux Falls, SD, to find support after an incident.

Having a way for local volunteers to have access to such debriefing support after critical incidents is one of the reasons Van Donge wanted to be part of the team.

“Having been on the fire department and through a number of calls I realized there was an importance of having a way for us to talk about some difficult stuff after the fact,” Van Donge said. “For me, knowing the debriefing process, too, I’ve been able to do that initial one-on-one and check in with members of Sioux Center Fire on their well-being and even a few days later as well.”

The volunteer CISM team offers its service for free as well.

“I don’t think you can ever put a price on when someone can go help someone else, especially their mental well-being and health,” Van Donge said. “And having fellow responders to be able to sit down and talk with after some of these hard situations — you can’t put a price tag on that.

“Just like first responders our CISM team’s focus is about supporting this wider community — about going and helping these strangers you don’t really know and helping them continue to be willing and able to answer the calls that come in.”