When the smoke has cleared and the ambulances have left the scene, Terry Cummings goes to work.
As a chaplain for the Hermiston fire and police departments, his job is to help bring peace and closure to first responders and families after tragedy strikes.
For his efforts, Cummings was awarded the Fire Service Award at the Feb. 1 Distinguished Citizens Banquet. He has served in that role in Hermiston since 2011 when the departments started a chaplain program. He had previously spent 43 years as a pastor before retiring.
As a chaplain, his job is to provide non-denominational spiritual, mental and emotional support to first responders in the police and fire departments — and sometimes, just listening to them talk about their experiences.
“Those men and women see the worst of the worst,” Cummings said. “They probably experience and see more in a month than most people do in a lifetime. Not many people run into a burning building or attend to some atrocity — but that’s their line of work.”
Cummings said for first responders, normal life is “anything but.”
“I’ve talked to first responders who’ve gone through horrific incidents,” he said. “If they’re not careful they stuff things inside.”
Giving those people someone to talk to allows them to work through some of the stresses of the job, Cummings said, and can be important in guarding against post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Just being able to talk to someone helps them cope with the stress,” Cummings said.
Chaplains also responds to other needs in the community — such as this Monday morning, when Hermiston High School senior Brok Palmer died at his home.
“We try to offer any kind of hope or support to victims,” he said. “In that case our job is to get them connected to someone they can turn to for support, like a pastor or a priest.”
In the past year, Hermiston has had several incidents where minors have died. Last summer’s double murder and suicide took the life of 14-year-old JJ Hurtado and his wrestling coach Kenneth Valdez.
“In a community the size of Hermiston, relationships are like a spider web,” he said. “People are connected through friends, family, work — you never know who’s going to be affected. It takes a huge toll.”
Chaplains sometimes accompany first responders to a scene, or to the emergency room. They are often the ones that deliver death notifications to families, and offer any support they can, both to families and emergency responders.
He recalls the situation last summer, where there were multiple families involved, as well as law enforcement officials from local and state agencies.
“At that point, our job one is to make sure they were coping properly, dealing with the situation,” he said. “When an event like that affects the whole community, that’s when we get involved.”
Cummings added that his job — to help first responders work through trauma — can take a toll on him, as well.
“One thing chaplains and first responders have to worry about is vicarious trauma,” he said. “Part of my ability to cope comes from my faith.”
He said chaplains also turn to each other, their families and friends for support.
“To me, it’s all about the health and welfare of first responders,” he said. “They’re all people I love very much, and want to make sure they’re OK at the end of the day.”
While he said not every pastor has the personality to be a chaplain, he feels he’s found his calling. “It’s a huge, huge privilege.”
“In a community the size of Hermiston, relationships are like a spider web. People are connected through friends, family, work — you never know who’s going to be affected. It takes a huge toll.”
Fire and police chaplain