Firefighters discuss 'being good stewards of mental health' following 6 dead in fatal fire

South Bend Fire Department’s Scene Safety Officer Captain Chuck Wawrzyniak discussed firefighter's efforts during residential fire on 222 LaPorte Ave., South Bend.
South Bend Fire Department’s Scene Safety Officer Captain Chuck Wawrzyniak discussed firefighter's efforts during residential fire on 222 LaPorte Ave., South Bend.

SOUTH BEND—When South Bend Fire Department Scene Safety Officer Capt. Chuck Wawrzyniak spoke at a balloon release Jan. 28 to honor the six young victims of a residential fire a week earlier, he expressed his and his colleagues' regrets and the trauma they felt following one of the deadliest fires in the city's history.

"There was nothing more that could have been expended that night that could have changed the outcome," Wawrzyniak said, "and for that, we are truly sorry."

The Jan. 21 fire at 222 N. LaPorte Ave. ultimately led to deaths of the six Smith children: 11-year-old Angel, 10-year-old Demetis, 9-year-old Davida, 5-year-old Deontay, 4-year-old D’Angelo and 17-month-old Faith.

What we know: Catch up with all The Tribune's coverage of the LaPorte Avenue house fire that killed five

"Many times, the efforts we put forth bring a favorable outcome," he said. "When we go back to the station, it makes us feel good. We go home to our families and we feel good.

"But not that night.”

Experiencing grief on one's own timeline

To support firefighters during this difficult time, they stand with their own.

Fire departments have a peer support team, made up of firefighters who are trained to be active listeners and to provide support to their peers.

The South Bend Fire Department's Assistant Chief of Prevention, Gerard Ellis, said there are many triggers of trauma on the job.

Ellis said he’s been in some traumatic incidents himself during his career. He hasn’t always sought help from the peer support team right away, but added, “Everyone is different. How they deal is different. You don’t always realize it at the time.”

“Sometimes it might affect you immediately; other times, it could be a month or a year later," he added.

Mental health resources within the fire department have grown over the past decade, Ellis said.

"We have more options to seek assistance rather than just being told to ‘suck it up,'” he said.

Peer support teams make mental health a priority

The fact that a peer support team member is a peer, someone who's seen the same traumatic events and can relate, is what makes this service unique, said John Niemiec, the Deputy Director of Occupational and Behavioral Health Services at the International Association of Firefighters.

There's currently 11,000 firefighters, EMS personnel and 911 dispatchers, within the IAFF, who trained in peer support throughout the U.S. and Canada,

Niemiec said people generally will experience trauma one to three times over a lifetime, whereas a firefighter, EMS or 911 dispatcher, "will experience a traumatic event one to three times per year."

"When you multiply that by the number of years of service," he said, "in that cumulative effect, we need to ensure, which we are, that we're looking after their mental health as well."

During his 32 years as a firefighter medic, before working with the IAFF, he witnessed two traumatic experiences on the same day.

He recollected going to a residential facility for disabled children and performing CPR on a child less than a year old.

A couple hours later, Niemiec answered a call about an elderly woman who found out she was diagnosed with cancer and committed suicide in the bathtub.

“You can only imagine what it’s like walking into that,” he continued. “That’s something that’s etched into your brain.”

"The reality is some first responders have pretty rough and challenging, traumatic jobs," said the clinical assistant professor of field and recruitment at Indiana University South Bend's School of Social Work, Catherine Herzog.

Herzog reflected on the role of a firefighter/EMS, ranging from responding to car crashes, fires or anything with a medical emergency.

"In responding to that, they're seeing these things," she explained. "They're seeing a victim or person injured and have to set aside the fact that they're working on a 7-year-old, a kid, and also have to deal with families who are upset and distraught."

As a clinical coordinator with the fire department's peer support program, Herzog has conversations with first responders, but, she said, peers can provide more reliability and credibility.

"It's a protective factor," she said of the peer support team's role. "It's normalizing the brain's response to those traumas. They can make sure (first responders) have the support in place to prevent PTSD, but also if PTSD is already there, think about, how can they maintain their wellness?”

Niemiec reaffirmed that sentiment, saying the because of services offered today, IAFF members are encouraged to open up.

“It’s peer to peer,” he reiterated. “It’s about trust. It’s about teaching (the peer support team) to look out for those nuances.”

“What are those behaviors?” he questioned. “Look at their mood.”

“As a fire service, we work as a team,” he clarified. "It’s our family away from family."

Peer support transcends what happens on the job, Niemiec said, and can support for what happens in firefighters' personal lives, whether they're struggling with an elderly parent at home, a divorce, a difficult time with children.

“By looking at those changes,” he said, “if I’m listening to you as a fellow firefighter, I’m actively listening. We as firefighters want to solve the problem. But we need to be actively listening.”

The city continues to grieve, striving for a path forward

Indiana state Rep. Maureen Bauer, D-South Bend, grieves for the six lives lost in the Jan. 21 fire and expressed gratitude for the efforts of the first responders on the scene, which is in Bauer's district.

"Last Sunday, the most devastating house fire South Bend has seen in nearly a century took the lives of 6 children. I am heartbroken by this tragedy, and my prayers go out to the mourning family," she stated in a press release.

"Thank you to the brave first responders from the South Bend Fire Department for their heroic efforts. We wish Firefighter White, who was injured while trying to save the children, a quick recovery."

South Bend Fire Chief Carl Buchanon speaks at a news conference Monday, Jan. 22, 2024, at the South Bend Central Fire Station about Sunday’s fatal house fire on LaPorte Avenue where five children died.
South Bend Fire Chief Carl Buchanon speaks at a news conference Monday, Jan. 22, 2024, at the South Bend Central Fire Station about Sunday’s fatal house fire on LaPorte Avenue where five children died.

South Bend Fire Department Chief Carl Buchanon is invested in helping his department move forward from this tragedy.

"We don't have the luxury to decompress or digress away from the incident," he said.

"More calls come in," he said, "and we have to respond."

There's no time to think about the "terrible, horrible, horrific events," he said, and to say, "Maybe, I should take the time to think."

In cases like these, Buchanon called the department's peer support team "invaluable."

"They provided help immediately," he said.

The peer support team evaluated the first responders involved and decided if they should go home or continue on.

"Fifteen, 20 or 30 years ago, there was no one to talk to," he said, "but now we're fortunate."

Firefighters in stations two, four, seven, 11 and Central were primarily involved, but, Buchanon said, it depended on the individual and their evaluation to determine when they were ready to return to work.

"We want to make sure we're being good stewards of mental health and not sweeping it under the rug," he said.

"We care for you, we're here for you," he reiterated.

Five of the Smith children died the night of the fire. Angel Smith then died Jan. 26 at Riley Children's Health in Indianapolis, where she had been airlifted for treatment in the facility's pediatric burn unit.

For firefighters at the LaPorte Avenue scene, Buchanon said, the news of Angel Smith's death has them experiencing their trauma all over again. It may be some time before they are able to talk about it publicly, he said.

At this point, he said, "we're trying not to think about it every moment."

Email Tribune staff writer Camille Sarabia at

This article originally appeared on South Bend Tribune: Fire department supports mental health with peer support team