Emergency chaplaincy: confronting death

Emergency chaplaincy: confronting death

Hanjo von wietersheim is an emergency chaplain of the first hour in the district of kitzingen. 61-year-old iphofener is a church councilor and state church representative for emergency chaplaincy in the evangelical lutheran church in bavaria, as well as spokesman for the psychosocial emergency care (PSNV) working group in the district of kitzingen. He witnessed the drama surrounding the accidental death of kitzingen fire department commander markus ungerer up close and personal.

Question: was the accidental death of kitzingen fire department commander markus ungerer your most difficult case as an emergency chaplain to date??

Hanjo von wietersheim: . Today, psychosocial emergency care – PSNV for short – is so well positioned in the district of kitzingen that the burden is shared among many shoulders. Together with our incident commander, a team was on the scene of the accident to support the fire, police and ambulance services. This team also organized the blessing after the deceased was rescued from the accident vehicle. Another team, together with the police, went to the victims’ homes and looked after them during the first few hours. I was at the kitzingen fire department house and accompanied the firefighters there. A few days after the accident, we had a debriefing with fire and rescue service personnel. A total of twelve PSNV staff members were involved in this operation.

In this case, many firefighters were affected. Was there a special strategy?

Wietersheim: the rescue workers essentially help themselves. They can rely on each other and talk to one another. Our task is to accompany them, to provide encouragement for helpful actions and to offer structured language within a safe framework. The PSNV staff are specially trained for this purpose.

What changes in the helpers after such a drama??

Wietersheim: the emergency services – including PSNV – mourn the loss of markus ungerer. He was a reliable and important partner in many joint operations. For many firefighters, he was a longtime good friend. As the on-scene commander, he was always responsible for our safety as well. His death makes it clear to us that every car ride can end fatally. Often a little inattention or a slight shift of the helm is enough. Each of us will have driven more carefully and more slowly in the days following markus’ death than we did previously.

His death affects us because it also makes us aware of our own vulnerability and mortality. And for our members, it becomes clear that every operation involves risks. Markus’s death also brings the emergency services together. We realize that we can care for each other, that we can help each other, that we depend on each other. So markus’ death will help all of us to do our work together in the rescue organizations even more carefully.

When do they reach their limits?

Wietersheim: it’s very different. Depending on how well I am or what has already happened, I can bear more on one day and less on another day.

How to keep your distance?

Wietersheimas an emergency psychologist, you always have to find the right balance between concern and distance. I always have to keep an eye on the situation and look at it from the outside. At the same time, i have to make it clear to those affected that i am with them, that i perceive their distress or suffering, and that i can endure it together with them. If I’m only distant, I can’t accompany anyone humanely. If I get too deeply involved in the suffering of others, I can’t help them. It is extremely important that I limit my task in the field to one area. So: just the incident command, or just the care of those affected, or just the support of the responders.

Does an emergency chaplain ever need help??

Wietersheim: of course, the PSNV’s own emergency crews need help too. Despite all the training and organizational help, it can happen at any time that one of us is overburdened and needs personal assistance. We have made provisions for this.

Has your view of death changed with your work??

Wietersheim: because of my origins in a military family and my earlier jobs as a police officer and as a rescue assistant, i have always had a very close relationship with death. It is part of my life. And of course, as a pastor, I am confronted with death again and again. For me it is important, despite the many deaths, despite the possible and actual catastrophes and despite the suffering of many people, to also see the joyful and beautiful sides of our lives. It involves celebrating with others, enjoying the love and affection of my wife and family, and being grateful every day for all that I have been given and all that I can do for others.

What qualities are needed to be an emergency chaplain??

Hanjo von wietersheim: keeping calm even in stressful situations. Being able to bear the fact that sometimes there is nothing you can do, but be with the person who is suffering. To accept one’s own strengths, weaknesses and limitations and – if possible – to call for further help in good time.

How long have you been an emergency chaplain – and how many assignments have you had since then??

WietersheimI’ve been an emergency chaplain for 28 years – I can’t keep up with the number of missions I’ve been on.

How does a mission normally work??

Wietersheima mission for us always starts with the decision of a leader or the integrated control center that psychosocial emergency care is needed at the scene. Emergency counseling is a part of this. As a rule, there is always a team, that is, at least two collaborators. In the event of an emergency, we look after the victims or accompany the emergency services of the rescue organizations.

How do you help concretely?

Wietersheim: our main activity is the personal presence. We endure the situation together with the people concerned. Sometimes we can help by explaining why the rescue organizations are doing what they are doing or by referring the victims to further help. We help the victims to inform helpful people from their family or circle of acquaintances and thus to build up their own social network.
The emergency workers with a church background naturally know church rituals. They pray together with the victims or bless the deceased. The accompaniment of rescue workers after stressful situations is completely different. Emergency responders react differently to accidents, and our staff must undergo special training to accompany them. A special feature of the PSNV team in the district of kitzingen is that we have a relatively large number of women in our ranks. Of course, this is especially good for the care of affected women.

How often and in which cases do you come into action??

Wietersheim: last year, the PSNV in the district of kitzingen had 74 missions. Most of these were internal, such as delivering the news of a death together with the police or caring for the bereaved after a sudden death. However, we are also frequently alerted in the event of traffic accidents or after a suicide.

How many emergency chaplains are there in the district of kitzingen??

We currently have 26 staff members. 13 are full-time or volunteer church workers, the others come from the various rescue organizations. We work together across organizations and on an equal footing with each other.

How did you become an emergency chaplain??

Wietersheim: before i became a pastor, i was a police officer and a paramedic and since i became a pastor, i have been a volunteer firefighter. In the case of firefighting operations, the question quickly arose as to who would take care of the victims or the surviving dependents. Since there were no corresponding structures at that time, I developed the emergency chaplaincy together with a colleague almost 30 years ago, and later also the chaplaincy for deployed forces.

The official funeral service for the late kitzingen fire chief markus ungerer will take place on monday, 14. The funeral will take place in the evangelical town church in kitzingen at 2 p.M. On january, with the burial taking place in the immediate family circle.