After the Sofa Super Store blaze killed nine of his fellow Charleston firefighters in 2007, Capt. Chris Villarreal often drank himself to sleep to escape the horror that filled his memories of that June evening.
Villarreal, who led the first crew into the store that night, doubts he would still be working for the department if not for the Charleston Firefighter Support Team.
Counselors helped him put down the bottle, cope with his memories and return to fighting form.
“I was going in a downward spiral, and they helped pick me back up and put me where I needed to be,” he said.
“It's a valuable service for our department, as important as water.”
Talk of planned changes for the program have sparked anxiety among firefighters and their families. Many have become attached to the program, formed after the sofa store blaze to counsel and console firefighters and their families.
And some worry that attempts to tinker with the program could result in less help for those who need it.
Charleston Fire Chief Karen Brack said that isn't the case. Changes in the works, she said, are designed to make the program more efficient and cost-effective. Among other things, she wants the city to take more advantage of insurance benefits to cover the costs of counseling and other services offered by the team.
“Any change may be uncomfortable, but it doesn't mean it's a bad thing,” she said.
Brack said the Firefighter Support Team is not going away, despite rumors and speculation in the firefighting community.
Brack said retirees, family members of the fallen firefighters and firefighters who were with the department during the Sofa Super Store fire will continue receiving the same benefits for free.
Firefighters who joined the department after the June 18, 2007, blaze will still receive treatment but might have to file an insurance claim, which wasn't done in the past, she said.
The amount budgeted for the team remains the same, $346,340. But Brack wants to stretch those dollars by tapping into insurance coverage for some services so she can pay for other wellness programs for firefighters, she said.
“We're working towards a wellness program that won't only take care of mental health but also the physical health,” she said.
But some in the firefighting community remain nervous about the changes. They worry that Brack's involvement will lead to cost-cutting measures that could harm the program and interfere with its independence.
Diane French, who lost her son Michael in the sofa store fire, said she's been inundated with messages from firefighters worried about the future of the team. She's concerned that requiring them to submit insurance forms will compromise confidentiality and discourage them from seeking help.
“It truly was a confidential program. I'm afraid that will change,” French said.
French and others also worry about talk that the team's leader, Gerald Mishoe, is being pushed out by Brack, who joined the department in August.
Brack credited the team with “tremendous progress” over the last five years and did not fault its leadership. She said she is still talking to Mishoe about his future role.
Mishoe, who has led the team since its formation, said he and Brack have a lot to discuss, and he's hoping the situation will be resolved in a week or so.
He's most concerned about the future of the program, and how the involvement of insurance companies might affect the unlimited access firefighters and their families now have to counseling to deal with the stresses of the job.
“Typically most insurance plans have a limited number of visits and limited access with mental health care, and our concern is the program we've had has been unlimited care for as long as they needed to be taken care of,” he said. “The bottom line is this program is not only about the Charleston Nine tragedy anymore.”
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