By Rubin E. Grant
Hoover firefighter Tory Rigsby has responded to a number of tragic incidents, but nothing compared to what he experienced earlier this month.
Rigsby, a district captain, and Lt. Hoover Jeff Harris were part of a 14-member fire department team from across the country that was deployed on July 8 when a condominium collapsed in Surfside, Florida.
The crew is a member of the International Association of Fire Fighters. The purpose of the deployment was to provide emotional support to first responders who were working on the building collapse. The deployed crews were trained by the IAFF as part of a peer support program.
Alabama Fire College partnered with IAFF to bring the peer-to-peer program to Alabama four years ago. Peer support firefighters are trained to recognize signs of stress and respond quickly. The reason is that firefighters can more easily relate to a peer who understands the emotional rigors of the profession.
“It was my first time out of state in three years that I’ve been doing this,” Rigsby said. “I’ve responded a number of times in the state, like the Scottsboro Wharf Fire and the Greenville Motor Vehicle Incident and a few smaller calls.”
The January 2020 wharf fire at the Jackson County Park marina killed eight people, consumed the wharf, and destroyed approximately 35 boats.
The Greenville crash involving multiple vehicles on Interstate 65 last month killed 10 people, including nine children.
On June 24, the death toll in the collapsed 12-story condominium in Florida stood at 98 last Friday.
Rigsby has been a firefighter for 27 years, including the 22 and a half in Hoover. The condo collapse was a whole different experience.
“It was something I had never seen before, given the size and scale,” he said. “It’s a difficult scale to understand.”
Deployed crew Rigsy and Harris were part of the initial visits to fire stations to speak with affected firefighters. The crew also split into shifts to work around the clock at the site and worked alongside search teams to recover the victims.
“We’ve kind of unofficially been doing peer support for a long time,” said Harris. “We come back from stressful calls and sit around the kitchen table, chatting and laughing at each other. We have a way to offload and talk about it, and this program is just a more formalized version of it. “
The two men estimated that their 14-member team, which included a Pelham firefighter, had 2,000 interactions during their time in Florida.
“I spoke to the rescuers going up and down the pile,” Rigsby said. “They were in what we call work mode. You could see how tired they were, but they had to get to work despite all the debris and dust.
“After the end, they would sit down. Some of them had been working for 3½ to 4 weeks. When you do something like that, struggles are going to happen. We were just trying to talk to them and prepare them for success.
“It’s not easy. I’ve been doing this since I was 18,” Rigsby said. “Things just add up. You know, if you feel it, other people feel it.
Hoover firefighters returned on July 13 after a nearly week-long deployment.
“Each of them I go to is different,” Rigsby said. “We were there to serve and help and also to learn, so that we could come home with the experience we gained to hopefully improve our program here in the State.”