After a tragedy it’s this team to the rescue

(From left) Josie Morgan, Stacey Christian and Heathre McAlees make up the Community Assistance Program. (Karen Schaffner/Staff)

The fire is out, the brigade has gone back to the firehouse, but the home is trashed from water and smoke damage.

There has been an unexpected death in the home.

A grandparent who lives alone has fallen and cannot get up.

Now what?

Enter Marana’s Community Assistance Program, a group of three who help Marana residents return to “normal.”

“We have a unique and special job,” Josie Morgan said.

“We assist the community in navigating resources. We are support for them on the scene when a loved one dies. We are there for them through the hard time. Our main goal is to help the community and find what they need, whether that be a ramp for their home or some shower bars or maybe they need help with placement into a facility or even getting some meals set up. We assist with that kind of situation.”

“We get to be an unbiased resource navigator,” Stacey Christian added. “We have no reason to suggest somebody do something. We give people information and allow them to make choices. Sometimes when you’ve experienced a traumatic event being able to make one choice gets you right back to where you need to be.”

From starting insurance claims to finding a place to go after a fire to clean up after a sudden death, Morgan, Christian and Heathre McAlees — the CAP team — are always on the job. Their shifts overlap so someone is always available, even early mornings. One of the three will help but only at the request of the Marana police or fire department; they do not accept requests from private citizens. They are well connected to available resources in and around Marana.

“The first thing I’m going to say is, ‘I’m here to help you,’” Morgan said. “I want to make sure that that’s OK with you.”

Do people accept the help?

“Yes, most people accept our help and are grateful for it because there’s just so much that you don’t know what to do next in a fire or any tragic situation.”

Of course, when any of the team shows up to a scene, they see to a person’s immediate needs.

“I want to be sure that their basic needs are being met,” McAlees said. “Is it raining outside? Do we need to get them into a shelter so we can sit and talk? Do they need some water? Do they need something to drink? Do they have shoes? Do they have socks? We have all of those in our vehicles. We have slippers; we have socks; we have hoodies. We have all of those things.”

They even consider pets or other animals.

“Sometimes we just put them in the back of our car,” McAlees added. “On fire scenes, I’ve almost had a pig. I’ve had dogs. I’ve had cats. I’ve had ferrets. I’ve had chickens. I’ve had snakes in the back.”

Morgan is a 10-year emergency medical technician, and worked at one of the Northwest fire stations running calls. It’s there she met the current staff. “Having done the time in the ambulance and in the firehouse has helped me understand this job,” she said.

Morgan also has an educational background in social work.

Tragedy and beauty

McAlees knows American Sign Language; at one time she worked at a school for the deaf. However, 23 years ago she had thoughts of becoming a K-9 handler and police officer, and so joined the first volunteer class of community assistants, hoping it would help get her hired onto the force. She’s not on the force but so happy with the way things went.

“It’s my dream job and I feel humbled that I get to be here,” she said.

McAlees said the job is a learning experience, as there are different situations to handle.

“We work closely with law enforcement, so we do respond to suicides and homicides and rapes and domestic violence and those different things, which all involve different training, and those are always evolving as well,” she said.

“The scenes are different because when you go to those kinds of scenes, you’re there with law enforcement and you have to follow very specific protocols and steps with law enforcement. We’re very well cross trained.”

In fact, the three seek training themselves, and the department is very supportive of making sure they get it.

It’s a tough job, but there are a few characteristics that each team member shares.

“You have to have a big heart, I think,” McAlees said. “You definitely need to be very strong. We respond to the same things that firefighters do, same things law enforcement does. However, we’re on scene for a very long time.”

On average, they work with clients for two to three hours, she said. To maintain resilience, McAlees emphasized the importance of self-care and having a support system. In fact, it’s part of their training.

“You have to be able to go to your colleagues or to someone and say, ‘This is kind of tough,’” she said.

They also have to be quick thinkers.

“I think we have to be able to pivot because we can pivot numerous times on any scene. You constantly have to be able to assess, and you have to be able to pivot, and we are also very mindful of our district’s mission: We’re there to care for the community, and that helps guide us.”

She said through her position, she’s met many fascinating people.

“It’s amazing the people that are out there,” McAlees said. “We respond to a lot of trauma, but speaking for me, it is so rare that I ever leave a scene regardless of what it is, how traumatic, homicide or natural death, whatever. It’s really rare that I walk out of there and don’t think, ‘Wow. I am so blessed to have this job. Look at these amazing people, and they allowed me in their life at probably the worst time ever.’”

A 16-year CAP veteran, Christian previously worked as a school counselor and teacher. For her, it’s the beauty she finds on calls that keeps her coming back.

“Every call is so unique, and there’s always something incredible from that, whether it’s a relationship that you see in a family, whether it’s a history that you gain from that family, or whether it’s just that you were able to sit and hold somebody’s hand and help them until the people that they were more familiar with come and be their support,” she said.

Born out of need

CAP was born out of a need that firefighters experienced at a scene. They really don’t spend a lot of time there, maybe 20 minutes or so. Forty minutes is a long call, according to Christian.

“Here they are, maybe they’ve worked somebody’s family member, and they were not successful; that family member died,” Christian said. “They have to get back into service. They were feeling like they were leaving people. ‘OK, so what do I do? What do I do now?’ Our program started because they wanted to provide that bridge for people.”

It was an innovative program at the time and continues to be so, operating with the support of Fire Chief Norman “Brad” Bradley. It allows “firefighters to go back on duty knowing that the community is going to be cared for,” Christian added.

It’s also a way for firefighters to follow up on what happened to the people they helped.

“I want people to know that they’re not alone, that when you’re in a time of need and you’ve had police and law enforcement and fire come, that when you’re in this area you’re not alone,” Morgan said. “We will get you through the hard time with the resources that you need. Any sort of situation that is tragic to you, we will get you through.”

“Law enforcement, firefighters, everybody in this community, they really do care about community members and everybody that’s out there,” McAlees said. “We want to do everything we can to give back to it and take care of our community members.”

“Most of the people who live here will never have the need to avail themselves of our services,” Christian said. “Yet they still support the fire district, which in turn supports us. We couldn’t help those people who needed us if they didn’t.

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