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 Hoover Lt. Jeff Harris were part of a 14-member crew from fire departments across the nation that was deployed July 8 to the condo building collapse in Surfside, Florida.
The crew are members of the International Association of Firefighters. The purpose of the deployment was to provide emotional support for the first responders who were working on the building collapse. The deployed crews have been trained by the IAFF in a Peer Support Program.
The Alabama Fire College partnered with IAFF to bring the peer program to Alabama four years ago. Peer Support firefighters are trained to recognize the signs of stress and provide early intervention. The rationale is that firefighters may relate more easily to a peer who understands the emotional rigors of the profession.
“This was the first time I’ve gone out-of-state in the three years I’ve been doing this,” Rigsby said. “I have responded in-state numerous times, such as the Scottsboro dock fire and the motor vehicle incident in Greenville and some smaller calls.”
The dock fire in January 2020 at Jackson County Park marina killed eight people, consumed the dock and destroyed about 35 boats.
The Greenville accident involving multiple vehicles on Interstate 65 last month killed 10 people, including nine children.
The death toll from the collapsed 12-story Florida condo building on June 24 stood at 98 as of last Friday.
Rigsby has been a firefighter for 27 years, including the past 22½ years in Hoover. The condo collapse was a totally different experience.
“It was something I had never seen before, given the size and scale,” he said. “It’s a scale that’s hard to fathom.”
The deployed crew Rigsy and Harris were a part of initially conducted fire station visits to speak with affected firefighters. The crew also broke into teams to work shifts around the clock at the site and worked alongside the search teams to recover victims.
“We’ve kind of unofficially done the peer support thing for a long time,” Harris said. “We come back from stressful calls and we sit around the kitchen table, we talk and make fun of each other. We have a way of unloading and talking about it, and this program is just a more formalized version of that.”
The two men estimated their 14-member team, which included a Pelham firefighter, had 2,000 interactions during their time in Florida.
“I talked to rescuers coming on and off 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 the job at hand despite all the debris and all the dust.
“After it was over, they’d sit. Some of them had been working 3½ to 4 weeks. When you do something like that, struggles are going to happen. We were just trying to talk to them and set them up for success.
“It’s not easy. I’ve been doing this since I was 18 years old,” Rigsby said. “Things mount up. You know if you’re feeling it, other people are feeling it.”
The Hoover firefighters returned July 13 after a nearly weeklong deployment.
“Every one of these I go to is different,” Rigsby said. “We were there to serve and help and also to learn, so we can come back home with the experience we’ve gained to hopefully improve our program here in the state.”