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A worker removes the rubble that used to be Surfside Condominiums. (Photo courtesy Alexander Hamilton)
Thursday, September 2, 2021

By Chris Frost

Tri County Sentry

Oxnard-- The conversation about the Surfside Condominiums collapse continues with Oxnard Fire Chief Alexander Hamilton checking up on the other 12 members of his team after he returned to Oxnard to make sure they were okay and getting back to living their lives.

 

Champlain Towers South, a 12 story beachside condominium complex, partially collapsed, Thursday, June 24, leaving 98 people confirmed dead. Hamilton was deployed as chief of a group of peer support firefighters and clinicians from around the country. 

 

Hamilton said people who provide support are always at risk of struggling when they return home.

 

"We have these six-board concepts in our resiliency class, and a lot of it surrounds positive emotions, thoughts, and interactions," he said. "It's the mind-body connection, nutrition, and exercise and that allows spirituality. Whatever that looks like for the individual. We teach that in the hope that we can give people a more resilient mindset so they can better deal with the adversities that come up."

 

Hamilton said the key ingredient moving forward is having an open and honest conversation with someone returning from a recovery event like the one in Florida.

 

"That includes somebody who recovered bodies from a building collapse," he said. "Be present at those conversations and allow people to give you their unvarnished experience." 

 

He said most of the people who lived in the collapsed building were Hasidic and Orthodox Jewish people, and the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) responded early in the incident.

 

"The Israelis are very good, unfortunately, at looking for people after a building collapse," he said. "Obviously, they have way too much practice living in the Middle East. They had incredible software that built 3D models of the building based on videos of the building collapse. They interviewed the family members of those that were missing and asked about their habits at night, what color the tile was in the bathroom, and if they wore clothes when they went to sleep. Would they sleep through the night or be up in the middle of the night. They asked them all these sorts of behavioral questions about what they would do, and when they went out into the pile, 95 percent of the time, they were accurate. They could go out into the pile, place a traffic cone and say within three feet of this location, you will find a body."

 

He said as they found bodies, they'd update the model.

 

"Back in Israel, they had a support team of 50 or 60 folks who were plugging in this information into the model as they would go," he said. "As they found a body, they would measure it out about where they expected it to be versus where they found them, and they did a model on that. Some of the innovations we saw were incredible."

 

He said from a support perspective, his team provided comfort measures during a long-duration incident.

 

"That's what we need to plan for, having those support networks in place to respond," he said. "Who would have thought they needed socks, but that was one of their biggest needs." 

 

Now, Hamilton said, the responders will need behavioral health support. 

 

"The recovery is done; the collapsed side of the building has been cleared, and now is where the recovery needs to be done for these first responders," he said. "I spoke with one of the counterparts I met last week," he said. "They are now starting to see some of the issues coming out where people are really struggling with their experiences.  They are making sure they have all the resources they need. There were a lot of people on that pile, four and a half weeks into that recovery."

 

Hamilton was there as part of the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF) contingent, and they are in a dialogue with six different FEMA teams.

 

"All of those folks are actually staying on a cruise ship and would get bussed in for 12-hour shifts," he said. "Once those folks start to demobilize and head back to whatever state they came from, what resources are in place for them? That was something we couldn't get our arms around. That's something the IAFF is working on right now to make sure wherever these folks went back to, they'll have the resources they need to unpack their experiences."

 

Hamilton said he spoke to a member of the Indiana-based FEMA team, and they spoke for an hour about things that she saw at the site, plus things back home that caused her to react.

 

"Her husband would normally be on the same FEMA team but had to stay behind to take care of the kids," he said. "Her husband knew how dangerous the work was, that pile was very unstable, and he had all these concerns. She just needed to tell somebody about all this other turmoil she had going on during this huge body recovery effort. During that week, I ran into her a couple of times."

 

Depending on the allotted time at the recovery, he said the conversation would range from “Hi, how are you doing?” to whether the woman spoke to her husband that day and what was going on in her daughter's life.

 

"I checked back in and validated her and the issues she had going on and making sure she was following through with some of the stuff we talked about, so she can provide reassurance to her family and be reassured by her family that things are okay," he said. "Things like that happened during the week, as well."

 

Hamilton noted within the First Responder field, the issues they experience do not go away.

 

"We need to be in the position to provide the resources needed when they are needed," he said. "In the State of California, around the beginning of 2020, they made PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) a presumption around police and firefighters. If someone is diagnosed with PTSD, there is an assumption there that the job caused that. There is a process they have to go through to legitimize that worker's compensation claim; therein lies the recognition that the job is unique and incredibly taxing. We need to be out there and have the resources to take care of those folks."

 

Hamilton considers it an "incredible honor" to provide this type of support to people from across the country and see how much people who help are appreciated.

 

"We had all these deep, impactful conversations with people, and a lot of people came up to us because they recognized our yellow lanyards," he said. "They came and said, hey, thanks for being here, and that's all they wanted to say. It's such fulfilling work to be able to provide that ear for people or to be there so they know if they need to, they can grab hold of one of us, and we can go sit down and have a conversation."