Chaplain Will Murphy with Dino Zeljkovic, a first responder with Hillsborough County Fire Rescue, part of the state’s Search and Rescue Task Force 3 for the Surfside hotel disaster.

LARGO — In Largo Fire Rescue Chaplain Will Murphy’s line of work, just being there ready to listen and talk is his first priority.

That’s because Murphy’s line of work is to be there for first responders who may be hurting themselves. The reason: first responders are under incredible stress and strain while working in the midst of a crisis or disaster site.

Murphy most recently was deployed by the International Association of Firefighters to provide mental health support for area first responders assigned to the search and rescue mission at the Champlain Towers high-rise condo complex in Surfside that collapsed June 24.

Murphy, along with a team of eight peer supporters and four clinicians from the New York Fire Department, Okaloosa Island, Orlando and St. Petersburg, were deployed from July 5-9 at the disaster site.

Prior to becoming a fire rescue chaplain, Murphy worked 26 years as a firefighter and paramedic for the city of Largo, retiring in May 2020.

Murphy had previously been deployed to emergency sites as a first responder while working for the Largo Fire Department, but it marked the first time that he had gone to such an event as a peer supporter.

The nature of Murphy’s peer support work — essentially to be on hand if first responders encounter mental distress — came to be when fire departments’ officials realized that responders’ needs could be emotionally and psychologically met as well.

“Peer support is kind of spurred through disaster,” Murphy said. “As fire departments recognized that there was a need for behavioral wellness, along with physical ability and wellness, they began working towards finding out what that mental) thing is and how it works.”

The Fire Chief’s Association in June established an initiative for “Firefighter Stand Down Week.”

“It was so we could look at adding a behavioral wellness component to firefighter rehab,” Murphy said.

Generally speaking, ‘rehab’ is where firefighters get breaks from whatever rescue or firefighting activity they’re engaged in, Murphy said.

“It could be a training exercise, or a 911 call, or deployment calls, like this one in Surfside,” Murphy said.

The Surfside collapse marked the first time the state of Florida had deployed any sort of behavioral wellness aspect to its rescue deployment, Murphy said.

“They were really interested in making sure that not only are you — the first responder —- physically fit, but that you are emotionally stable and ready to go,” Murphy said.

An estimated 300 first responders were on the scene when Murphy and his team arrived that day.

“Every one of our urban search and rescue teams in Florida was deployed to that emergency,” he said.

While there, Murphy and the team set up a resource center in a 10 foot-by-20 foot portable building with air conditioning. They also cobbled together an assortment of miscellaneous items they thought first responders might find handy.

“It was small things that you might run out of, but forget to bring,” Murphy said. “Powder and toothbrush, moleskin, Band-aids, ibuprophen — just little needs. It was a place just to sit and relax and decompress.”

One team worker even brought an economy-sized bag of lollipops that he handed to rescue workers as they came off the rescue site and into the rehab center.

“That opened up time for conversation,” Murphy said.

It turned out that many of the responders in Murphy’s group of peer supporters had been at Ground Zero on Sept. 11.

“They had been there, and done that, and were able to emphasize with those folks who were doing work and coming in for a break, and able to hear the difficulty that was home,” Murphy said.

For the most part, the first responders as a group worked flawlessly, said Murphy, focused on the task at hand of methodically sifting through the building rubble one section at a time.

Murphy added: “Every personal effect, every bit of remains, everything that the first responders believed could be important to somebody who has survived this, who is a survivor of someone who perished, all of that was kept very meticulously and put over on the side for the people who were left behind.”

Murphy’s introduction into firefighting chaplaincy actually started three years prior to retiring, when he along with other partners began working on a behavioral wellness program.

It was during Murphy’s continuing medical education as an instructor for Pinellas County, he heard a medical term that stuck with him — “traumatic stress.”

“The Pinellas County medical director wanted to focus on behavioral wellness through our training and mentioned something called the ‘employee assistance program,’” Murphy said.

“It was then that I began asking questions, and said, `Hey, we need to do something more than what we have in Largo.’” Murphy added. “It’s when I began to look into how can we provide behavioral wellness for firefighters.”

As a result, eventually the C2 Pinellas Chapter was launched in October 2020 to make available behavioral wellness counseling for members of the Largo Fire Department.

Between October and December last year, Murphy, C2 Chapter Director, and Dan Horne, the newest C2 Chaplain, have ministered to over 250 Fire Rescue personnel and helped to support nine first responder events.

The two chaplains have also completed over 100 hours of personal development training to include the Chaplaincy Care Academy 101-301, Behavior Health Foundations, SAF-T training and CVI Program.

The two chaplains have also received training through Chaplaincy Care, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization whose mandate is to train, equip, encourage and protect the heart of first responders and their families.