Florida A&M University‘s longtime professor Kellie O’Dare is working in a place very unusual from her normal line of work. It’s been a week since a waterside condo in Miami collapsed in the middle of the night, and now she’s on site working to make a difference amid the rubble. Learn about her work in mental health at the site, and the conditions she’s working to improve in the Tallahassee Democrat article by Ana Goñi-Lessan below.
As soon as you step outside the barricade at the Surfside condominium collapse site, it’s like a switch.
It’s Miami Beach. People are on vacation, and it’s a beautiful day.
“Many are not even aware what’s going on down the street,” Kellie O’Dare says.
O’Dare is a faculty member at FAMU and director of the 2nd Alarm Project, a mental wellness initiative for first responders in the Panhandle.’
She is now embedded with Task Force 7, members of the Tallahassee Fire Department’s Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) Team, who left Sunday for Miami-Dade County to help with recovery efforts.
Rescuers have been working to find victims in the rubble after part of the Champlain Towers South building in Surfside collapsed June 24. So far, 22 people been confirmed dead with 126 still missing as of Friday evening.
“It’s hot, it’s pouring rain, and they don’t stop because they have a task,” she says. “No matter how challenging it is for them, physically and mentally, they are driven to accomplish their mission, to bring these family members back to their loved ones.”
O’Dare is providing mental health support for the first responders at the site of the collapse, also known as “the pile.” She also is working closely with the International Association of Fire Fighters with their peer support initiative and with the State Fire Marshal’s office.
Peer support is one of the most important resources for first responders at the site and can be more effective than professional services, O’Dare says.
Fire chief: ‘We can’t just … shut ourselves off emotionally’
Tallahassee Fire Chief Jerome Gaines has been a firefighter for 38 years. When he first started, he says first responders were expected to just tough it up and keep moving forward.
It took years to change that mentality: “We can’t just respond and shut ourselves off emotionally,” he says.
Gaines says that other than 9/11, the Surfside condo collapse is one of the most traumatic incidents he’s seen, and peer support is essential to keep his team healthy.
“Very few understand what first responders do on a day-to-day basis,” says Lance Butler, an engineer EMT with the fire department and the peer support team leader.
“Of course it’s not always this big or it’s not going to be on the news, but you can pretty much guarantee that a first responder every day sees someone on their worst day,” he adds.
Butler, who has worked with the department for seven years, says it’s crucial to talk about the emotions of the job. Encouraging mental health support, especially on the most difficult days, can help first responders enjoy a long and successful career.
O’Dare says Task Force 7 has already worn through their first pair of work boots in five days. As long as there’s no lightning nearby, workers continue sorting through the rubble in the rain. They can’t just easily walk up the pile because it’s jagged.
And it’s South Florida summer hot.
“But when they’re on that pile, they’re laser focused on the task at hand,” she says.
Butler says as soon as the team gets back to Tallahassee, they have the potential to go right back on shift and get right back into any type of emergency.
Fortunately, he says, Tallahassee is a town that supports first responders. It’s not uncommon for residents to come up and thank them.
Before the pandemic it might have been a hug — now it’s a fist bump. But the small gesture still matters.
“Those little things make a world of difference,” Butler says. “Even with everything else going on in the world, knowing your community supports first responders is a big deal.”