By Audrey Fraizer
Wendy Norris was no more prepared for the injuries suffered as a firefighter in a roof collapse during an apartment blaze than the fire department was prepared to help her following the accident nearly 20 years ago.
Norris, who lost her helmet and breathing apparatus when debris from above knocked her down, suffered serious and permanent injury from inhaling smoke and soot. She was able to make it safely out of the building, although damage to her respiratory system cut short the hope of a promising career in firefighting.
“To lose that was difficult,” Norris said. “This was something I had wanted to do since age 5, and at that time, only in my early 20s, the doctor advised me to stop. So, I did that. I left. I had to.”
The experience soon proved more than merely emotionally, financially, and physically debilitating from the career perspective. She feared losing connection to the public service community that seemed hesitant to get involved.
“In the work we do, if you’re injured, and at that time, you were treated like a pariah; if you died, you were considered a hero because you gave your life to protect others,” she said. “I was critically injured on the job and ignored.”
Norris was mostly bedridden during the six months after the accident. With the desire to keep her mind busy and bolster her dampened spirits, she went on a personal quest to find other former and active firefighters experiencing any of her same psychological and emotional pains in relation to an on-the-job injury.
It wasn’t easy, she said.
This was 1997, a decade before social media and at the genesis of Internet searches when it took at least one minute to load a page from any of the few newspapers or magazines posting articles online. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was still considered relatively controversial.
“Even if the technology was available, people in public service didn’t talk about it because it would make them look weak,” Norris said. “I struggled over why I didn’t die since not many firefighters survived from a roof collapsing on them. And if I had died, there would be benefits for my survivors.”
Finding little available during a search limited to phone books, classified ads, and word of mouth, Norris decided to be the one to start the conversation through a program that would connect survivors and provide a library of resources. The name she selected—Firefighter Ministries—was not religious but spiritual in its intent. She wanted an organization that would serve firefighters unable to continue in their jobs or those finding it increasingly hard to do so due to injury such as hers or from debilitating illness, such as post-cardiac arrest.
“Our ministry offered the basic biblical philosophy to serve,” she said.
The ministry started small, picking up momentum in 2000 after a fire took the life of firefighter Kevin Scott Harshbarger, a volunteer firefighter and dispatcher for the Scenic Loop (Texas) Volunteer Fire Department. Harshbarger was 36 years old when he died of smoke inhalation after falling through a roof while ventilating the building during a structure fire.
Harshbarger’s wife was six months pregnant and, according to a tribute on the Fallen Firefighter memorial page penned by his son Alex, who was 7 at the time of his father’s death, “It was really hard on her for a very long time. I now get to sit and tell my sister just how much my father would have loved her and that he is riding that big red fire truck in the sky keeping an eye on her.”1
Harshbarger’s death clearly showed fire officials how tough the loss of life was on family and the department, according to then Lumberton Volunteer Fire Department (LVFD) (Beaumont, Texas) Chief Dennis Gifford, who attended Harshbarger’s funeral.
“I didn’t know Scott personally, but I had volunteered at a neighboring fire department in Polk County before going to Beaumont (LVFD),” Gifford said. “I was just appalled by the three line of duty deaths in the past 18 years [at Scenic Loop] and nobody knowing what to do for the survivors after the bugle call and ceremony. No one knew how to deal with the survivors. No one knew how to talk with them, treat them, or give them the help they needed. I didn’t want history to keep repeating itself.”
Gifford had met Norris through the Firefighter Ministries, and together they developed the idea of a voluntary strike force that would respond within 12 hours of a fatal accident/injury. Norris presented their proposal to the Texas State Firemen’s and Fire Marshal’s Association. The association agreed, and in 2001 the Texas Line of Duty Death Task Force was born with the intent of providing assistance and education to all fire and EMS departments and families.
The first order of business for the task force was devising donation fundraisers to cover the mortgage and car payment and keep food on the surviving family’s table. They set up workshops to show other fire departments how to prepare for “what we don’t want to happen but unfortunately does,” Gifford said. The task force grew steadily to offer services “from A to Z,” Norris said, and now serves as a model nationally and internationally.
“If they need us to notify the family, we do that,” Norris said. “We take care of the administrative side of working with the department to relieve the family and the support agencies that can assist. We provide funeral preparation assistance, and, after the funeral, we switch into long-term help.”
Norris, who oversees operations, coordinates a 30-member response team and the volunteers providing support at events, such as the annual family retreat. Their services now extend beyond firefighters and EMS to law enforcement. Their matchmaking survivor service lends a network for authentic discussion.
“We help to rebuild lives and lift people out of the mud pit of grief,” she said. “We work on the dynamics of the individual and the family, and you really can’t help what others are going through until you’ve been through it yourself.”
The task force does not approach anyone without an invitation, although task force volunteers might—because of department affiliation—be the first to knock on a survivor’s door.
Melinda Wessels had a full house of supportive firefighters within hours of the on-duty death of her husband, Chad Wessels, a career firefighter for the Fort Hood Fire Department and Emergency Services (Texas). Chad was killed in a one-vehicle accident in the early morning hours on Dec. 11, 2005, while responding to a structure fire in his role as a Captain for the Briggs Volunteer Fire Department (Texas).
Wessels, who was awake when her husband left, knew there was trouble when listening to the scanner at their home. A mutual aid fire department had requested assistance at a grass fire that Wessels knew was along the road her husband had been traveling.
“I sensed something was wrong, so I called dispatch (Burnet County Sheriff’s Office),” said Wessels, who was a dispatcher for the Marble Falls (Texas) Police Department Division of Communications (1998–2013). “They knew my voice. They knew what had happened, but they weren’t in the position to tell me—they couldn’t. I kind of knew anyway.”
Within the hour, a knock came to the door and during the next several hours, Norris and other members of the Texas LODD Task Force were among the people stopping by to offer condolences and assistance.
“They [task force members] were there ready to coordinate everything,” Wessels said. “Chad and I had never really discussed that sort of stuff; you don’t think about it at such a young age. Thankfully, they knew what to do.”
Two years after her husband’s death, Wessels, then an auxiliary member of the Briggs Volunteer Fire Department, became an active firefighter at the department and was named Chief in 2009. She has initiated many of the goals she and her husband had talked about, such as new, safer fire trucks and protective equipment for the firefighters. She has also kept in contact with the task force that helped at the time of his death 10 years ago. She and the couple’s daughter, 7 months old when her father died, attend the annual Texas LODD Task Force Retreat. In September 2015, Wessels was ready to take the next step in giving back to the task force that, she said, has done so much for her. Wessels asked Norris if she could contact the wife of a Burnet (Texas) Fire Department paramedic and firefighter who was killed in an on-duty traffic accident.
“I can do this,” Wessels said. “I knew the emotions she was going through, and I could tell her that what she was feeling was normal. Everyone has had to grieve at some time, but it’s not always in the same way. I could relate to what she was going through.”
Over the past 15 years, the task force has helped well over 100 families and departments. Gifford said despite the apparent success of the task force, it’s never easy and they do make mistakes but they try not to repeat them.
“We saw the problem and knew that to fix it we had to jump in,” Gifford said. “We’ve always tried to do the right thing while at the same time being human.”
Norris said she would not trade what happened to her because of what she has learned and how she has benefited from the benevolence she finds in people they assist during tragedy and the volunteers willing to make the contact.
“I have a whole new respect for life and the way you should treat people,” she said. “It’s also a healing experience for me. Life is short, and the ministry and now the task force gave me the opportunity to be a better steward of my time.”