Sometimes major disasters like Hurricane Irma can make smaller mishaps like fires and car crashes seem small. But for the people involved, they are just as devastating and the need for help and comfort is immediate. That’s where the TIP program comes in. "TIP stands for the Trauma Intervention Program" said Cheryl Kulka, a volunteer with the TIP affiliate in Northwest Florida. "We are available for all first responders in Santa Rosa and Escambia County." The emergency, 911 dispatcher will call the TIP dispatcher to send one of the volunteers to a fire, a death or accident on the highway, to aid and comfort the survivors on the scene.
The TIP program was founded in San Diego back in 1985 by Mr. Wayne Fortin, a mental health professional who decided that the needs of survivors of everyday tragedies were not being met. There are now 14 TIP affiliates across the country. The branch in Northwest Florida is the only one in the state. Cheryl Kulka explains what happens when she arrives at the scene of an incident. "[At first] you go immediately to the first responder [and] introduce yourself. They will take you to the survivors and introduce you. At that point you are actually doing a triage. You're looking at everything that's going on in the situation. You are going to take care of the people in need the most first. If you feel like it's a situation where you need more than one volunteer, you call the dispatcher back, who stays in contact with you constantly, and they will send more volunteers. So you leave the first responder to be able to do their job, and you take care of the survivors."
That help could be anything from making sure a car crash survivor has a ride home to making sure a confused child has someone beside them while waiting for family members to arrive on the scene. TIP volunteers will also accompany police officers to home when someone has to be informed about a death in their family. Kulka says they are pretty much ready for anything. "I had one situation where the family member had 14 dogs! Well something had to happen to them. So I was able to get the animal shelter involved also, and we were able to place all of the dogs. So there's a broad view of what we're able to do. We recommend funeral homes if [the survivors] don't have one. If it's a situation where there's a fire and they have no idea who to call, we know [who to call and help the survivors with that]. If the situation is where we feel like there is a concern for somebody hurting them self, we will notify the first responder, they will speak to the people and they will make the decision on wether we need to bring somebody in to take care of them."
All of the people involved in the local TIP program are volunteers, and they all go through a 55 hour training course. Once a volunteer has completed the course, they are put on the calendar. TIP requires you take three shifts per month. The shifts are 12 hours. And if you are called by the dispatcher, you are expected to be ready. "You need to be in a position to leave [your home] within 5 minutes. So you can't be having your hair done or be out to dinner. Those days [that you are on the schedule] you are dedicated to TIP." The TIP volunteer will remain on the scene until the first responders, usually the police, leave the scene.
Kulka says that there is usually an experienced volunteer with a new recruit on their first shift. "I had somebody with me, and on my first day I actually had back to back calls. So I jumped into it right away!"
The next TIP training class begins on November 30. There are eight classes and they are scheduled in the evening and on the weekend. You can learn more at tip-ser.org, or by calling 850-483-0404.