By State Rep. Matt Willhite
It’s early in the morning, the sun has barely begun to light up the sky. Most are still sleeping. As a firefighter, it appears like any other morning. We arrive at the fire station and run down the checklist of chores that must be accomplished to be prepared for the day. And while everything is going according to plan, this is the type of job where there is no such thing as a regular day.
Any given moment, early in the morning or late in the evening, the alarm may sound, sending us all toward whatever danger awaits on the other end of a 911 call. Recently, this fact became a reality for firefighters and police officers in Miami-Dade County. Yet, during the pre-dawn hours of Thursday, June 24, not a single one of those first responders could have expected what they were about to be faced with.
At approximately 1:30 a.m., the 12-story Champlain Towers South beachfront condo building in Surfside, Miami, partially collapsed. It was weeks before we knew how many had died. Nonetheless, in the months ahead, we will be asking why this incident occurred. What could have been done to prevent this tragedy? Who is to blame? And what role does the government have to play in all of this?
My 25 years as a firefighter and my eight years prior serving in the U.S. Navy have guided my time as an elected official. Many decisions I have made have indeed been through the paradigm of someone who has seen certain similar types of tragedy up close. We often think of PTSD as something that affects veterans coming home from war. Yet, likewise, the firefighters and police officers who tirelessly worked at the scene of the condo collapse in Surfside will not be able to unsee the tragedy.
There is more to being a firefighter than the made for TV moments that depict bright red fire trucks and Dalmatians. As any first responder can attest to, they are the first-hand witnesses to tragedy and destruction, factors that they see daily because of their jobs. They are not machines. They are men and women who cannot leave their job when they go home. They will forever feel the profound sadness that comes from seeing too much. First responders are in the trenches — the boots on the ground. Rescue response teams were in Surfside working day and night to bring those affected by the condo collapse some hope and closure. We cannot underestimate the toll this will take on these brave men and women and their families.
One of the most emotional battles I took in Tallahassee was passing PTSD coverage for first responders.
I know that my experiences and the testimonials of other first responders led me to pass legislation in 2018 that ensured that these men and women could receive PTSD coverage to help them cope with their experiences on the job. It was a crucial victory for all Floridians. Protecting first responders’ mental health assists them in being better protectors of the public’s safety.
When the dust settles and the last piece of concrete is removed, there will still be a pile of rubble consuming the minds of every family affected and all the first responders on the scene. The media may not report on it, but what remains is an unseen tragedy that isn’t easily repaired.
When terror strikes, first responders are the first ones we turn to. After all is said and done, it’s our hand that they’ll reach out for. So in the days and weeks moving forward, as we remember the families whose lives have changed because of the condo collapse in Surfside, let us also not forget the first responders on the scene since the first 911 call was made.
If you or a loved one is suffering from PTSD, please reach out for help. Safe Call Now is a confidential, 24-hour hotline specifically designed for emergency services personnel and their families. They can be reached at (206) 459-3020
Matt Willhite has been a captain with Palm Beach County Fire-Rescue for the last 25 years. He served 8 years with the U.S. Navy as a corpsman with the Marines, 8 years on the Wellington Village Council and has represented District 86 in the Florida House of Representatives since 2016. In 2022, he is running for the Palm Beach County Commission.