Team of chaplains ready to help local first responders during stressful times
It had been a rough weekend for first responders in Lawrence.
First, they rescued a 1-year-old and his mother, after she allegedly drove a vehicle into the Kansas River. Then, the next day, they recovered the body of a 5-year-old girl who had also been a passenger in the car.
At times like these, Paul Taylor and six volunteer chaplains are a quiet force standing alongside law enforcement officers, firefighters and emergency service crews offering help as needed. Sometimes, all that is necessary is for them to place a hand on a shoulder.
It’s a ministry of presence. Essentially, chaplains are just there and supportive for both the victims and first responders.
Sometimes people forget first responders are human and have emotions, said Sgt. Kristen Channel, with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Department.
“We have to have outlets for what we see and deal with,” Channel said. “Our chaplains are a great resource, they are there for us, they know what we are going through, they know how to counsel and provide resources we might need at the time to make it through stressful and emotional events.”
Taylor is a familiar face with first responders, having arrived in Lawrence as a paramedic with the Douglas County Ambulance Service in 1981.
He trained at Southwestern College in Winfield back in mid-1970, when an ambulance looked more like a station wagon and often served a dual function as a hearse.
In 1995, Taylor retired as a paramedic and spent the next 20 years serving as a full-time pastor at a Lawrence church.
By 1997, the Douglas County Ambulance Service merged with the fire department and became Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical. That’s also when Taylor returned as a volunteer chaplain.
“They started having difficult things happen, and I started as the fire department’s chaplain,” Taylor said.
There had been a house fire in North Lawrence, and a 5-year-old child died.
“It was one of those circumstances which was very difficult,” Taylor said. But at the time, there wasn’t a chaplain or someone to debrief the firefighters.
By 2005, he also began serving as chaplain for 911 dispatch, providing education and support for when they dealt with crisis calls.
Sheriff Ken McGovern asked Taylor to serve as volunteer chaplain with the sheriff’s department in 2009.
“Sheriff McGovern had a vision and was very instrumental in the chaplaincy program as it is today,” Channel said. “He had the foresight to realize the need was growing and we needed to grow the chaplain corps.”
It has gradually grown to seven chaplains, including Taylor. They now also serve the Lawrence Police Department and the underwater search and recovery team.
Taylor came on staff full time with the sheriff’s department three years ago. The other six chaplains remain as volunteers. Taylor’s duties are twofold: one part involves serving as an administrative training officer, helping with the hiring of corrections officers and working with the patrol officers; the other is serving as chaplain.
“It’s more about officer wellness and prevention to enhance the quality of their lives as they go through the stressors inherent in their difficult jobs,” Taylor said.
Chaplains are there to serve everyone — the people in crisis and the first responders. They go along with the officers to deliver traumatic news to families.
“We never impose. We always meet people on a practical level, person to person,” Taylor said. Sometimes, they will offer to make phone calls or meet whatever need a person in crisis might have. “Occasionally, we will offer to pray and we have rarely ever had someone turn us down in those situations.”
However, they never push their faith.
“We never come with an agenda,” Taylor said. “We come in and are allowed to serve as the people and first responders want us to.”
There are times when all seven chaplains are needed for an incident, such as the time there was a drowning at Douglas State Fishing Lake just north of Baldwin City.
“It was March and a young man had drowned,” Taylor said. “It was really cold and difficult conditions. They were unable to locate the body, and the team was on the scene for several days.”
The victim’s family had gathered there and it became a team effort between the chaplains and the sheriff’s office to help support the family.
In good times and bad
Taylor admits there are times when a chaplain needs someone to be there for them. That’s when they turn to each other.
“We strongly encourage our chaplains to practice the same wellness principles that we encourage others to do,” Taylor said. “It’s not enough to know it, you have to know it and practice it.”
Taylor counts on his family, faith and trusted friends, including the other chaplains, to see him through the rough times.
“We debrief each other when we go through difficult calls,” Taylor said. “We are human.”
He said the currency in emergency service is trust. Taylor said he has heard first responders say, “Just having you here makes us feel better.”
From the law enforcement perspective, Channel said they went many years believing they were not to show any emotion.
“You were not supposed to have feelings,” Channel said. “You were expected to go from traumatic call to traumatic call and basically just suck it up and deal with whatever stressful situation.”
It has only been the last several years that law enforcement agencies are realizing officers and deputies can’t handle every tragic situation without feeling emotion. Taylor said statistics show law enforcement officers have four times the risk of dying from their own hand then they do a felon.
“Suicide is more than double for law enforcement than the general public,” Channel said.
She said she believes those numbers reflect not having the opportunity to discuss what they experienced.
“They just returned the next day and went back to work. Agencies are realizing that law enforcement has to change the way it practices and handles its officers dealing with tough calls,” she said.
Channel said she believes McGovern has been very good at providing the resources necessary to deal with what happens, which she says leads to a staff that is healthy — emotionally, mentally and physically.
“The chaplains program has been great for that,” Channel said.
Chaplains aren’t around just for major traumatic events.
“There is not just a hard side,” Taylor said. “We will do weddings and funerals. Our motto is ‘With you in good times and bad.'”
In the rhythm of their day, they might be a sounding board for somebody or they may see someone else who wants them to pray with them, or someone might ask for counsel. But other times, it’s just a hand on the shoulder, or offering a bottle of water, a warm blanket, or standing quietly alongside a grieving person.
“We are here to serve,” Taylor said.