Serving those who Serve

Fire-fighting chaplain brings comfort to stressful scenes

Posted: Sunday, November 11, 2007


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  As a chaplain for Central Emergency Services, Keith Randall serves both his department and the community.

As a chaplain for Central Emergency Services, Keith Randall serves both his department and the community.

As Gail Simons put her head on the pillow, the phone rang. It was 11:10 p.m. on Saturday, April 29, 2006.

"You need to come out," the caller said.

"Is Cody OK?" Simons asked.



Chaplain Randall works at the scene of a fire off Kalifornsky Beach Road in September 2006. His duties vary with each call that he responds to.

Simons made her way to the Sterling Highway where it meets Forest Drive. All she could think of was getting to her son and praying for him before paramedics took him away. But even as she pulled up to the wreckage, even though the only visible sign of Cody were his legs sticking out from under the frame of a car, Simons didn't think that he might be dead.

"I walked right up to the car, trying to feel a pulse from the ankle, just asking the Lord to give him his spirit back," Simons said. "I heard him say, 'Mom, if you could see what I'm seeing now ... .' I knew he was gone. I knew he was in a safe place."


Central Emergency Services Chaplain Keith Randall, third from left, and other firefighters work the scene of a house fire in September 2006.

Fourteen-year-old Cody Geesey had been on his way home from a youth group function at the Abundant Life Assembly of God church in Sterling. Simons watched as rescue workers extricated Cody from the wreckage, handed her his shoes, hat and cell phone and put him in a body bag on the side of the road. When Central Emergency Services chaplain Keith Randall arrived at the scene of the accident, Simons emerged from the woods.

"He asked me, 'Is there anything I can do?'" Simons said. "He was full of peace and composed, which was a terrible thing to view. (I asked) 'Can he get me my son?'"

As chaplain for CES, one thing Randall reminds rescue workers is that each person responds to crises differently. For a grieving mother, fighting paramedics and other rescue workers is a normal reaction when her son is lying on the side of the road in a body bag. On that night, Randall paced up and down the highway with Simons, kept her from going back to the wreck while rescue workers were there and prayed with her.

"After all was said and done, I realized what he did that night," Simons said. "I went to CES to apologize. I didn't treat him very nicely."

The basics of disaster psychology

Keeping your wits about you during a crisis, whether it's yours or someone else's, is difficult for anybody. But when you're a firefighter, a paramedic or a police officer, losing your cool during a disaster could make things worse both for you and the victims. It's your job to be level-headed when others around you are losing it. Even so, working in stressful situations can be overwhelming for the most dedicated firefighter. That's where a chaplain comes in.

"I see it as 'serving those who serve,' being able to help our firefighters and medics do their job," Randall said, quoting a motto that's often used for people serving in the military. "My job is to help them do their job better."

Randall views his role as chaplain for CES as one more tool in a firefighter's tool belt. Being present at the scene of a house fire to comfort the survivors or lending an attentive, but non-judgemental, ear to a firefighter who can't get a particular situation out of his or her mind, is part of disaster psychology and plays just as an important role as first aid or CPR during a crisis.

"We forget the mental, emotional and spiritual effects that disasters can have," Randall told a Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) as part his presentation on disaster psychology. Emergency workers often endure the vicarious trauma of feeling someone else's pain, he said, giving volunteers a list of stages people go through when experiencing Acute Stress Disorder, or ASD. "It's the sustained reaction to an abnormal event (which lasts) a minimum of two days to a maximum of four weeks," he said.

For a rescue worker, things like a briefing before going into a disaster situation, taking breaks and getting enough to eat and drink, and then having a chance to talk about the crisis afterward, helps to transition from a period of high stress to a period of low stress. The technical term for this is critical incident stress management, and Randall says it is to mental health what EMS is to physical health.

"(You have to have) callouses to do your job," he said. "But we don't want to be calloused enough where we can't think and feel."

As he paced up and down the Sterling Highway with Simons, Randall kept his emotions in check even when he physically restrained Simons from returning to the accident. A year and a half later, he sat in the offices of Hospice of the Central Peninsula listening as Simons told her story, and the tears came.

"Sometimes I can't help but let my tears flow," he said. "But I have to be careful that it's not about me."

Road map to a calling

There are jobs flipping burgers, bagging groceries, writing memos and there are callings. When Randall applied for the voluntary position of chaplain at Central Emergency Services out of a desire to give something back to his community in 2003, he had no idea that he was on his way to a calling. As then-director of administration for Peninsula Grace Brethren Church in Soldotna, he simply wanted a way to get out of the office and into the community.

Randall grew up a pastor's son in Remus, Mich., and working with people is something he is familiar with and loves. He earned a degree in biology from Cornerstone University, taught junior high and high school and was director of the Higher Ground Camp for six years before marrying his wife, Stephanie, and moving to Alaska in 1994. Once on the Kenai Peninsula, he became involved with the Boys and Girls Club and oversaw the opening of the Nikiski and Seward clubs.

"I still see kids that I worked with over there," he said. "One kid was in high school when I worked there, now he's on staff."

When he began working at Peninsula Grace a year after attending church services, he mostly dealt with finances. He became interim pastor in 2006 when the church's full-time pastor went on sabbatical, and was promoted to senior pastor last month. Even though he takes on the responsibility of senior pastor, he said the church recognizes the work he does as CES chaplain.

"The church is really supportive," he said. "They see it as a way that our church can reach out to the community."

His family is also supportive. Even if Randall may not be able to pick them up from school or has to leave during dinner, his two boys, 11-year-old Tommy and 9-year-old Toby, understand and are proud when their dad tells them he had to help a family.

"There's a joke around my house, every time I get home and put my sweat pants and slippers on and sit in my chair, my pager goes off and it's time to go," Randall said.

Between the church and his chaplain ministry, it's a treasured moment when Randall can simply relax outdoors with his family. Between camping trips at Johnson Lake, ice fishing during the winter and summer trips with his family, whenever Randall isn't working, it seems like he's always outside.

"It's an excuse to be outside," he said. "(Kenai) is where everybody comes in order to vacation."

What it takes

Randall hadn't been on the CES staff for a month when he got called to a SIDS death. To this day, he says it's one of the most difficult situations he's been in.

"I don't even know what I did," he said. "I came in and just helped."

As chaplain, Randall says one of his jobs is to help people through the most difficult time of their life and get them to realize and reach out to their support groups. In the SIDS case, Randall watched the family hold and say good bye to that baby and then helped them reach out to their church, a network that could help them later on.

"On that particular call I did well holding back my emotions," he said. "You have to have callouses to do your job."

Randall said he works directly under CES Chief Chris Mokracek, which allows him to interact with personnel without the chain of command getting in the way. When he's out on a call, he works directly under the incident commander, which allows him to maintain his position as a somewhat outsider, allowing firefighters and paramedics to come to him without fear that he'll tell their superiors.

"I'm not a spy for the white shirts," he said. "They can talk to me in confidence and know I'm not going to say anything."

As part of his training, Randall took a 56-hour intensive course at the Chaplain's Training Academy at the Washington Justice Training Center in Tacoma, Wash. There, Randall learned how to identify the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, how to give death notifications and how to protect himself during a critical stress incident. The academy was also an important way to get in touch and network with other chaplains, which allowed Randall to further help survivors of an emergency.

"A few months ago there was a local family who had an incident involving Washington State," he said. "I called the chaplain in that town and he said here's the person you need to talk to. It's cool to have a network of other chaplains."

That network of chaplains comes in real handy when Randall feels that he himself needs a chaplain. When he responded to the SIDS case, he held his emotions in check, but when he was alone in his truck, he said he couldn't even speak. After responding to as many as three death calls back to back, he said he knew he needed to make sure he had someone to talk to who wasn't part of the church or the fire department. When he gets up to preach at Peninsula Grace, he said it helps his role as chaplain to realize that most people are always going through something.

"People are good at hiding what they're going through," he said. "Being in the community, I get to see things I hadn't realized are in the community."

After the emergency is over, Randall tries not to have any contact or acknowledge the survivors in any way. Even though he's done his best to help them, Randall said he's a reminder of a disaster they're trying to forget. It's especially difficult when he has to do a death notification.

"I had somebody say to me I hope I never see you again," he said, adding that meeting him wasn't something the survivor wanted. "I usually say I wish we would have met on the riverbank fishing."

At the CERT training session on disaster psychology, Randall touched briefly on death notices. One of the most important things to remember, besides making sure you've got the deceased's identity right and are talking to the next of kin, is to avoid using euphemisms. Randall said it's important to say dead or died within four words to avoid being misunderstood.

"Cover the body," he said, when talking about managing a death scene. "Follow the cues of the family. (There are) different religious and cultural morals in how to handle the body."

Often police officers are asked to do death notifications, something for which they get very little training. Randall will go along with the Soldotna Police Department or Alaska State Troopers in order to provide comfort when the officer has to inform someone of a death. When CES responds and a death is involved, Randall said he'll often stay behind for an hour or two to let firefighters or paramedics respond to their next emergency.

"The typical way they do it is the police officer delivers the information and the chaplain is there to help comfort (the next of kin)," Randall said. "I think I can make it easier for the police officer or trooper to do that job."

Even though he's on call via pager and cell phone, Randall makes frequent visits to CES's Soldotna station to hang out with the firefighters on duty. Even though, he's not a firefighter himself, he'll pitch in if he's asked to, but said he wants to be the best chaplain he can be, not a firefighter. Randall did, however, take a basic first responders course designed for EMTs in order to have enough medical knowledge to assist paramedics.

"If something happens I can be helpful," he said. "I report to whoever the incident commander is and usually my role is to be accountability chief."

In addition to being a friendly ear, ready to help get a firefighter or paramedic through one emergency before they continue on to the next, Randall enjoys the camaraderie of just being at the station; he even earned a nickname.

"Capt. (Dick) Kapp said, 'We're going to change what we call you,'" Randall said. "'You're not Chaplain One, you're Holy One.' I'm very honored that the people who have been here longer show me some respect and freedom."

When asked what the most important lesson he learned at Chaplain Academy was, Randall said one of the most essential things to being a chaplain is just being there. The ministry of presence is a lot more important to an emergency survivor or a stressed out firefighter than speaking is, he said. A lot of it is showing up.

"Sometimes it's not saying anything," he said. "Sometimes I think I do a lot more good listening than I do talking."

Grieving forward

During his presentation at the CERT training session, Randall told volunteers that it's OK to let people grieve, but make sure you know what's normal and what's problematic and how long they're grieving. It's OK for them to yell at you, he said, and it's OK for them to cry.

"One of the things I have to do is not take it personally, they're not mad at me," he said. "If I can be a lightning rod for that anger, it helps the family to release that anger."

Anger and frustration were two of the main emotions Simons felt the night her son died. When paramedics handed her Cody's shoes, hat and cellphone, she said "God! I just want to be next to my kid!" Sitting next to his body bag on the side of the road, she said she just wanted to be alone. When the members of the congregation gathered around Cody's body singing songs, at that point she just had to get out, it was too overwhelming.

Simons, who became the bereavement coordinator at Hospice of the Central Peninsula shortly after her son died, said she's still grieving, but she calls it grieving forward. Cody's friends were hurting so much, she said that she invited all the kids at Soldotna Middle School to her house for a barbecue.

"At least 150 kids showed up," she said. "Hospice played a video on grief and I had phone books for them to shred."

Shortly after Cody died, Simons said she was having some physical issues, but when she told her doctor about her son, he referred her to a psychologist; someone who hadn't experienced grief. Simons said he looked at her and said she didn't look like someone who's grieving.

Even though a pastor or a chaplain can't share what a grieving person is going through, he or she lets them know that it's OK.

"We just need permission to grieve," Simons said.

When Randall works with a family who has lost a loved one, he said his goal is not for them to get over it, but to get through it and experience it. The difference between families and responders, he said is responders have to get over it to be able to go out on the next call.

"Or goal should be to live and work through it," he said.

Simons agreed.

"You can try to cover it with medication or you could just face it," she said. "I wish I could say in five years I'll be fine."

Even though Randall's job is to help people get through the most difficult time of their life, he said the best part is seeing them smile a year or two after their disaster, whether or not they see him. Instead of receiving recognition for his actions, he said he would rather recognition went to the chaplain program because if something happened to his family, he would like a chaplain to be there.

"I could never do this job on my own strength, I wouldn't make it a day," he said. "It's a lot more than a job. If it was just a job, I'd rather be flipping burgers."

Jessica Cejnar can be reached at

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