Thirty seconds. That's all Fred Gagliardini needed to see of the news coverage of the Valentine's Day massacre at that South Florida high school. Thirty seconds to learn three things: whether the person who'd just killed 17 people was an adult or a juvenile; whether he was a disturbed student, teacher or parent; and whether he used a semi-automatic rifle or some other tool of death.
The rest he knew.
He knew first responders would have been moving cautiously through blood-speckled hallways, crouched slightly, guns drawn, gazes focused, not knowing if the figure about to pop out from behind a desk was an innocent student, frantic for their protection, or the shooter himself, looking to add them to his carnage.
He knew other first responders would have been wholly consumed by the single prone figure lying before them, trying to clear a gunshot victim's breathing passage or frantically pounding on a chest to restore a heartbeat.
And Gagliardini knew that those first responders would remember these moments for the rest of their lives.
Just like he would always remember the day he and another coroner's investigator walked out into a cotton field south of Bakersfield to study the body of 4-year-old Jessica Martinez, murdered by a still-unknown assailant almost 28 years ago.
He knows the first responders and others involved in the aftermath of that Feb. 14 mass shooting in Parkland, Fla., will need someone to talk to, someone who at some point in his career also witnessed trauma wrought by violence. Someone who, as a result of that experience, was once also burdened with a trauma of his own.
Gagliardini, who years ago turned in his coroner's badge for a career as a private defense attorney, knows there's only one way for someone who lives with this type of post-traumatic stress disorder to move on.
"Talking about it with other people," he said.
Dionisio Mitchell can vouch for that. The Kern County Fire Department battalion chief had started feeling the weight of all he'd seen in his career. He had witnessed too many tragedies — events that he couldn't have prevented and couldn't make right afterward, but still ate at him.
One in particular stands out: a 2-year-old boy had run out of the house to say goodbye to his mother, who was pulling her car out of the driveway to go to work. She never saw him. "You're there witnessing the parents experiencing this terrible loss and you feel like you didn't complete your job."
Over time, he became angry — angry at work, angry at home — "done with people," as he put it.
That's not an uncommon outlet for first responders who find themselves in Mitchell's situation, said Sunny Mueller, a mental health clinician who has worked with affected first responders through Rotary House Retreat, a project of Bakersfield's six Rotary Club groups.
Anger is but one possible pitfall, she said. "Addiction issues. Unhealthy coping mechanisms. Drinking is probably number one. Risky behavior. Putting oneself in harm's way."
"Three in the past five years in Kern County that I'm aware of," she said. "But then first responder suicides are severely underreported. Whatever number you've got, increase it by at least 30 percent."
Chief among the reasons for suicidal thoughts among first responders: Disillusionment. Many law enforcement officers, EMTs and firefighters get into their profession out of a desire to protect others, save lives, make a difference.
"Where people were not able to be saved, they will run over those events in their head," Mueller said. "It's devastating to someone in the helping profession."
That's where Mitchell found himself. He convinced himself to attend a Rotary House Retreat, where he unplugged from the world for a week and talked to people — some of the first responders like himself — who understood what had happened to him.
The retreats, which bring together professional clinicians, peer counselors and chaplains, take place at a remote and confidential guest ranch in the Sierra Nevada.
"They help first responders preserve their careers, restore their marriages, and avoid even thinking about suicide, John Pryor, a Rotarian who supports the retreat, wrote in an email. Pryor noted that Rotary Clubs throughout the U.S. have asked the Kern County chapters for help replicating the Rotary House Retreat.
Seeking help can create complications of its own, of course. Suicide has a stigma and so, naturally, does accepting help to prevent it. The same goes for PTSD.
"Once you say you've got it, the first thing they want to do is take your gun away and put you behind a desk," Gagliardini said. "That's the fear."
But should those concerns dissuade a troubled, hurting first responder from looking for healing?
"No," Gagliardini said. "You still have to talk." And talk he does, availing himself to first responders who need a little confidential, informal counseling.
We owe them that, Mueller said.
"They take care of us. We need to take care of them," she said.