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Desert Companion

Humanity at its finest


TIP Volunteers
Brent Holmes

Helping hearts: Volunteers talk at a TIP meeting.

In a person’s darkest hour — when a loved one has died — the volunteers of the Trauma Intervention Program make sure the survivors don’t grieve alone 


You don’t want to meet a TIP volunteer. If one arrives at your door, it means the unthinkable has happened. Someone you love has been killed in an accident, a homicide, perhaps suicide or natural causes, and while first responders make their way to the scene, a second call has gone out to arrange “citizen-to-citizen” support for you, the decedent’s survivor. You don’t have to be alone when the unimaginable happens; our branch of the Trauma Intervention Program will make one of its 70 volunteers available during the first hours of the grieving process. They are crisis-scene advocates and personal assistants and emergency friends. Highly trained, naturally sensitive people, TIPs are do-gooders willing to be with strangers in the worst moments of their lives.

“We call it emotional first aid,” Scott Vivier, a volunteer who also works as a Henderson fire chief, explains at a monthly TIP meeting. “There are times when the decedent’s survivor literally has no one else. Imagine a spouse who just lost their only companion. They have no family left, no children. They are in a place all by themselves, and even though we’re only with them for those first couple of hours after the tragedy, that time frame can make a difference.

Support comes from

“It really is humanity at its finest,” Vivier adds. “This is people helping people.”

The Trauma Intervention Program was founded 30 years ago in Southern California, when grief counselor Wayne Fortin noticed many of his patients struggling to move on from incidents that occurred in the immediate aftermath of a death. It might have been the clinical way in which first responders acted on the scene. Sometimes his patients felt lingering bitterness over a neighbor’s insensitive questioning. Or regrets about the way they explained the loss to a child. At times, having no one to express their sorrow to in the first emotional hours after a death was that haunting experience. TIP was launched to minimize such unfortunate events and, when possible, prevent them.

“We’re part of the emergency-response system, but we don’t work for them — and there’s a significance there,” says Jill Bernacki, CEO of the Trauma Intervention Program of Southern Nevada. “Some people are leery of talking to police or more people in uniform. They’ll talk to us because we’re just another person.”

Vivier describes his fellow TIPs as “everyday citizens who want to be there to care for somebody else,” which conveys the gentleness you hear in their voices, the sincerity you read in their eyes when you meet.

At their gathering in September, when volunteers break into small groups to discuss the month’s most difficult calls, one volunteer scrubs tears from his cheeks as he describes visiting a man who lost a grandchild. “What a horrible, painful, awful situation,” he says, pausing often as he speaks. “It was a privilege to be of some service, but there was no sense that … I mean, he was just crushed.” On the way home from that call, the volunteer had to pull over to collect his emotions. At home, he gave each of his kids a hug.

One of the unintended side effects of exposing yourself to so much pain and grief is that you never take the people in your life for granted. TIP volunteers are frequently reminded how fragile life is. In fact, they receive that lesson more than counterparts in any other TIP affiliate city.

Lean on me: Trauma Intervention Program CEO Jill Bernacki

Lean on me: Trauma Intervention Program CEO Jill Bernacki.  Photo by Christopher Smith

‘A Very Busy System’

The Trauma Intervention Program has 15 branches in California, Nevada, Oregon, Arizona, Florida, Massachusetts, North Carolina and Maine. They are organized in cities as large as Portland and San Diego, but the Las Vegas entity is the biggest and busiest.

Vivier, who has worked in emergency services in Clark County for more than 20 years, says, “We are a very busy system for tragedy because of our sheer size. The population can double on a weekend. And being a 24-hour city, I think you are going to have a higher call volume than other areas.”

Every call the group receives is placed by a medical professional, law enforcement officer, the fire department or coroner’s office. In some cases, calling TIP is written into department protocol. Vivier says first responders have a strong affection for TIP. “What we find is that with people during a tragedy there are emotional and practical needs that aren’t addressed anywhere else in the system other than by TIP,” he says.

We often expect the kind of soft approach and generous emotional support provided by TIP volunteers to come from emergency-services professionals on trauma scenes. But such expectations are neither fair nor realistic.

“Emergency responders certainly are compassionate,” Bernacki says. “They just might not have the opportunity to stop their investigations to do what we do on a scene.” In addition to being the organization’s CEO, Bernacki is an investigator in the Clark County coroner’s office. “It boils my blood to hear people say the police are not compassionate, or the fire department doesn’t have a heart. They do,” she says. “They wouldn’t be calling us out to the scene if they didn’t.” She says that having a volunteer explain the investigative process and keep the grieving person occupied often makes it easier for emergency-services workers to do their jobs.

There’s another reason Vegas is the busiest of TIP’s 15 affiliates.

“I think there are real social struggles that our community is faced with,” Vivier adds. “I think all those things combined make it so we keep getting busier. The response keeps growing every month.”

Last year, the organization responded to 1,233 trauma scenes, where they assisted more than 5,500 people. This year, TIP has answered well over 100 calls a month and is on pace to hit more than 1,400 scenes in support of an estimated 6,000 people. The majority of those calls are for natural deaths, while the second most are alleged suicides and the rest are about evenly split between accidents and homicides.

Emotional burnout is obviously a concern. That’s why TIP volunteers only do three 12-hour shifts per month. The commitment also includes a monthly meeting where they receive informal seminars from emergency services and then gather in small groups to discuss their most difficult calls. At the September meeting, a representative from Metro gives TIPs a presentation on programs available through the victim-services unit. She shares information on grants available to families of homicide victims to improve home security. That’s another reason first responders like to call on TIP: The program has a serious training regime that is proven and ongoing.

Learning to Reach Out

Among the first things volunteers learn during two weeks of classroom sessions is that there is no one way to grieve. A person hit by tragedy might need to flail on the ground, or stand still in quiet anguish. It could be that they are very talkative, and they sometimes ask volunteers to pray with them, too. Whatever the situation, TIPs are instructed to “meet the person where they are.” And yet the range of scenarios they walk into is staggering. Imagine trying to calm a person who wants to run into a burning house, or assisting an overseas tourist who speaks very little English, and with the sudden loss of a spouse is alone in this strange country, this surreal town. Or, as one volunteer recently did, playing peacemaker between two families furious over the accidental death of an infant. When the mom and dad are separated, when they don’t get along and their families are on the verge of a fight — and you’re there to support them all.

TIPs spend the first week of training just learning how to reach out to people suffering great loss — their “clients.” Although the volunteers never know what dynamic to expect on a scene, they are taught to always speak with a soft tone, use nonconfrontational body language and avoid phrases that might make the person feel worse. This means that when the individual is sitting on the ground, their TIP sits on the ground, too. You avoid physically facing a client, as if interviewing them or engaging in a transaction. The volunteer positions him- or herself at the individual’s side, a less-intrusive posture that shows they are with them, available when needed but not demanding attention.

They are instructed to focus conversations on the survivor as much as possible — their feelings, their memories of the decedent, their concerns about what should happen next — to allow the client to vent as much as possible and avoid confusion in the few hours TIP is there. Stock phrases such as “It’s going to be okay,” “I’m here to help” or “I know how you feel” are purged from the aspiring volunteer’s mind.

“We don’t like to use the word ‘help’ because nothing can help in that situation. Nothing we say or do is going to make someone’s tragedy better,” Bernacki says. “The worst one is, ‘I know how you feel,’” she adds. “We can’t claim to know how they feel, because no one does. Everyone grieves differently.”

These and other lessons are followed by three months of field training. By shadowing veteran TIPs, new volunteers begin to recognize when clients give verbal and nonverbal cues about other things they might assist with — advice on the appropriate time to contact mortuaries, or how to tell friends and family about the death.

Perhaps most importantly, TIPs learn as soon as they arrive at a scene to begin determining whether their clients have additional sources of support.

“When we leave — which we are going to do — this person’s life is not going to be any better than it was before we got there,” Bernacki says. “We’re hopefully softening a little piece of the process while we’re there. But we’re also going to try to identify a source of strength for that person to hold onto when we leave. Whether it’s getting their social support mobilized or calling their rabbi, priest or pastor. It could be that they need to hold onto a pet. It could be memories. A lot of times we’ll go on a scene, and that person starts sharing memories of their loved one; they want to start that memorialization process. They’ll pull photos off walls, photo albums out of bookcases, start going through this person’s life. It could be holding onto a piece of clothing. We try to leave knowing they at least have something to hold onto, whether it’s physical or emotional.”

All of this is a lot to ask of volunteers, most of whom have no prior experience in emergency response. The ones at the September meeting are retired social workers, lawyers, former real-estate agents, secretaries and event planners. They all admit to feeling nervous every time they arrive to a new scene. But then so does the Henderson fire chief.

“It’s much more difficult than responding to a normal medical call,” Vivier says. “These TIP calls, each one is unique, each one is very challenging. I’ve worked in emergency medical services for over 20 years, where the job is to fix things. But when you go on these calls, you can’t fix anything.”

Most volunteers say kid calls are the hardest. Vivier, on the other hand, says that the one which affected him most was a call for an elderly woman whose husband committed suicide. He couldn’t quite explain why. Yet he didn’t really have to. It’s hard to imagine a situation more traumatic and painful than having a loved one take their own life. And to have that be the last person left in yours.

Vivier didn’t experience any closure with that woman. They rarely do. A lot of volunteers punctuate stories by saying, “I couldn’t tell if I made a difference.” The reason most of them joined TIP, of course, is to help people. But survivors don’t overcome the initial shock of tragedy that quickly, so the clients may not realize the effect that volunteers have until they reflect on the event much later.

Occasionally, TIP receives letters. Thank you notes that Bernacki reads aloud at their monthly meetings: “Russ was very sincere, kind and supportive of me and my family.” “Tiara was very helpful and it was nice to talk to someone.” The volunteers clap after each letter. “Lea helped my daughter in viewing the body before the mortuary took him,” another wrote. “I believe that the service she provided is needed. I think that during a difficult time having someone there to answer questions is a great idea.”

Those volunteers mentioned by name smile as their fellow TIPs turn to applaud.

All except one. There’s one volunteer who doesn’t hear her thank-you note — she’s out that night on a call. 

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