SOMERS, N.Y. - Sometimes the rescuers need rescuing.
For anyone who doesn’t have to deal with catastrophe routinely, it’s nearly impossible to imagine the emotional wear and tear many first responders suffer.
Twenty-five years ago, although “critical incident stress” had already been recognized as a growing national problem, sufferers were encouraged to suck it up and move on. No one dared raise the subject of fear and anxiety, much less talk openly about mental illnesses and rising suicide rates.
Now, in these post-9/11, current COVID-19 crisis times, care and compassion for those who see their fellow humans at their most vulnerable and never flinch has become part of “our everyday vernacular,” says Paul V. Jockimo, who just wrapped up his term as chief of the Somers Volunteer Fire Department.
And he should know. When not working his day job with the county’s Department of Emergency Services, Jockimo is helping troubled comrades get on the road to recovery.
As the founder and president of Peer Support Networks Inc. and faculty member of the International Critical Incidents Stress Foundation, he engages in countless one-on-one conversations, interventions, group processes and referrals 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
His brain is always on call. That in itself could be stress-inducing, but for Jockimo, it’s a blessing.
Profiled in photographer Paul Mobley’s 2017 book “American Firefighter,” he makes no bones about the times he needed and asked for support.
Now Jockimo feels duty-bound to return the favors.
“I just want people to help other people,” he said.
On Sept. 11, 2001, Jockimo, then one of New York City’s bravest, was on vacation in North Carolina. But within minutes of learning of the terror attacks, he had jumped on his cell phone and was mobilizing dozens of emergency teams.
Eighteen of his comrades—many of them members of the Special Operations Command Unit—perished at Ground Zero.
In New York a few days later, as he looked in horror at the smoking rubble of the World Trade Center. Jockimo was gut-wrenched, realizing that some his friends were “part of that dust.”
Even in that hour, he was no stranger to the heartbreaking experience of “in the line of duty” deaths.
Four years before, when Jockimo was a firefighter in Brewster, he lost a close pal, 35-year-old volunteer firefighter Lt. Michael E. “Satch” Neuner. The five-year veteran of Ladder 4 died battling a house fire in the Putnam County village after becoming trapped in the home’s basement.
Also part of the crew that day, Jockimo survived…physically. Like 9/11, the date is forever engraved in his memory: June 22, 1997.
A Peekskill police officer, Neuner was supposed to be on vacation but had reported to the scene because the home belonged to people he knew.
And it’s those personal connections that can really ramp up anxiety levels for first responders. For all they know, the person they just rescued could be a neighbor, one of their children’s teachers or the friendly guy who runs the deli where they get coffee every day.
It’s the human factor that makes the current coronavirus mess so “singular,” said Jockimo.
Everyone seems to know someone who has gotten infected and recovered, or has died. Then there’s the very rational fear of bringing a deadly virus home to your family.
The dad of three predicts that the need for psychological support will last long after the pandemic’s acute phase is over.
“Service to others” isn’t a hackneyed phrase, it’s “a mind-set…a way of life,” he said, adding that he feels “honored and privileged” to have worked alongside fellow Somers firefighters, as well as members of the local Lions Club, Somers Police Department, State Police and town government.
LOVE MEANS NO LIMITATIONS
Selflessness is simply something that should never be taken for granted.
Jockimo bears that in mind every Mother’s Day when he thinks of the woman who gave birth to him but gave him up so he could have a better life, and of his late mother, the one who took him into her heart and home.
“People just didn’t adopt kids like me,” said the childhood subject of Manhattan author Bernard Wolf’s groundbreaking book, “Don’t Feel Sorry for Paul.”
He also thinks of his childhood occupational therapist who taught him that the only limitations he had were the ones he chose.
Jockimo was born with ectrodactyly, a genetic condition characterized by hand and foot abnormalities. He has two fingers and one toe.
But, as he said in his “American Firefighter” bio: “Big deal, everyone’s different.”
He’s never let a mere digital deficit get him down. “Pinkies, what purpose do they serve?” he once joked.
A passionate home cook and baker, the only kitchen utensils he’s not really good with are chopsticks. (But, hey, who is?)
“I don’t like to fight with my food,” he admitted jovially.
Wolf followed the then 7-year-old for two weeks during his daily routine that included putting on complicated prosthetic devices, horseback riding, playing football and painting. His realistic portrait included the gutsy kid’s reactions to random insensitive remarks and his clever way of avoiding tasks he didn’t like.
Jockimo regrets that he never got to reconnect as a grown-up with Wolf.
“It is easy to focus on the bad and the negative. But, adjust your view and shift your perspective to focus on the good that so many are doing these days, the humanity, compassion and caring for others,” he said.
Like lots of little boys, he got the yen for battling blazes when he first spied a fire truck blasting by his window with sirens blaring.
He was 4, bored and stuck in a Manhattan hospital during one of his innumerable surgeries.
However, it was godfather Freddie Kempter who really kick-started his future career. A Mount Kisco volunteer firefighter, Kempter was killed by a drunk driver when Jockimo was 13.
“He was the one who taught me that if your neighbor needs help, you help.”
One of those neighbors he’s helped, Larry Uffer of the Somers Lions Club, said that when it comes to thinking up ways to help the community, Jockimo’s “wheels are always turning.”
KEEPING IT INSIDE
Shortly after Jockimo joined his first fire company at 17, he was part of a team extricating a car crash victim from the wreckage.
The teen didn’t know how to process seeing the person’s mangled body. He also knew he couldn’t show that it had affected him.
“I didn’t want to seem weak, so I kept it inside,” he said in “American Firefighter.”
Jockimo went on to fight fires the same way, aggressively and “without excuses.” To folks who asked him how he handled a hose or an ax, he’d answer: “If you want something bad enough, you just find a way.”
By the time he was 23, firefighting was a “large part” of who he was, but, sadly, so was drinking. Like everything else, he tackled the problem head-on, and with the moral support of a retired chief who had been sober for many years, he cleaned up his act and went on to work in the Bronx with the FDNY Bureau of Fire Communications.
In 1995, he transferred to the Westchester County Fire (now Emergency) Services and was recruited for the regional Critical Incident Stress Management Team by a co-worker who told him he had the right stuff.
Through his training, Jockimo came to realize that suppressing thoughts and feelings had “harmed” him “and many others as well.”
“Through these simple processes, coupled with compassion, empathy, and presence, I now saw a new way of taking care of our most valuable assets, our firefighters and EMTs,” he said “American Firefighter.”
It was Neuner’s death in 1997 that Jockimo said changed his life forever: “From the surrealism, fear and grief that was the scene that morning, to the enormity of the planning and preparing for what would follow, this was unfamiliar territory.”
Line of duty deaths are not uncommon in larger cities, but smaller communities “rarely, if ever, go through such a horrific event.”
As part of his own reckoning, Jockimo started studying them, eventually developing courses to help others heal.
Since, he has lost many friends in the line of duty as well as suicide.
“Their lessons, and legacies, go into all that I do,” he said in “American Firefighter.”
Since 1998, he has traveled all around the country sharing these lessons. As a survivor of PTSD, addiction and divorce, Jockimo’s looking forward to the day when people don’t have to stay 6 feet apart from one another.
“How great will it be to hug people again?” he asked.
A BIG ‘FAMILY’
The SVFD has about 105 members and handles an average 2,500 calls a year.
“That’s a lot of lives touched,” Jockimo said of his big “family.”
Jockimo is button-busting proud of all his fellow volunteers, but he’s especially pleased by the way younger folks have been stepping up to the plate.
Five members of the Junior Corps have just earned their EMT cards. Many have gone onto related careers in such areas as law enforcement.
“It’s a great group, a testament to their advisers and the way they motivate them,” he said.
Then there are the volunteers with 40 or 45 years under their belts. “They’re still here at 3 a.m. regularly.”
He handed off the chief’s helmet to Jonathan “Jon” Mackey on May 1 but will remain as a member of the department.
Of all the titles Jockimo’s held–chief, instructor and author–the best are dad and firefighter because “both mean family.”
Some fire chiefs might wrap up their time in office by talking about the “big ones,” major fires they commanded.
And Jockimo does not deny that public accolades are nice, but he treasures the private victories “somewhere down the road”–the ones he sees in the eyes of those he’s tried to help.
What does he hope his “legacy” as a chief will be?
“That’s simple: that I cared about every one of my people.”
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