While in Surfside, Florida, a first responder working the tragic collapse of the Champlain Towers South condo building approached Deborah Beidel with fine jewelry he found among the rubble. He was worried about who it belonged to and the significance it held.

“With discoveries like this, you’re helping people get a part of their relative back,” Beidel said to the first responder. “You’ve helped them get closure. You’ve helped them get a piece of their mom back.”

He hadn’t really thought of it that way.

It’s conversations like these that Beidel, executive director of UCF RESTORES, and faculty members David Rozek and Amie Newins engaged in last week through Independence Day weekend in the South Florida town. They were on site as a mental-health resource for more than 300 first responders who had been tirelessly working since June 24 to uncover bodies. As of the afternoon on July 8, 60 victims were uncovered and 80 remain unaccounted for.

David Rozek (left), Amie Newins (center) and Deborah Beidel (right) address crowd of first responders
Deborah Beidel (right) joins first lady of Florida, Casey DeSantis (center), and others while on site of the search and rescue efforts at the condo collapse in Surfside, Florida.

UCF RESTORES — a nationally known nonprofit trauma research center and treatment clinic — is the mental health partner of the Florida Firefighter Safety Collaborative, a nonprofit organization that educates and trains firefighters on physical and mental health. The Collaborative called RESTORES to Surfside to be on hand to help first responders. They provided psychological first aid — meeting with the search and rescue teams when they stopped for lunch or at the end of the day to check in on their mental wellbeing.

“Some were OK, and some needed to talk about what they saw. Our job is to let them know we’re there to help them and be there for them, now and down the line if they need it,” says Beidel, who alone spoke to about 100 first responders.

RESTORES has responded to other traumatic events, including the shootings at Pulse Nightclub in 2016 and in Las Vegas in 2017. The clinic has developed a number of strategies to help first responders process the stress of traumatic events like these that they work.

“There’s no one reaction to trauma, and we want them to know we’re here to help them through it.” — Deborah Beidel, executive director of UCF RESTORES

One service is a single session consultation line developed by Rozek, assistant professor of psychology, who also went to Surfside. The consultation line is free for first responders and in a 60-minute phone call, they can talk about their stressors and develop a plan with coping strategies with the help of a RESTORES therapist. For those who need additional support, RESTORES offers more intensive individualized and group therapy.

RESTORES was founded in 2011 with a mission to change the way PTSD is understood, diagnosed and treated. The organization’s unique approach to treatment, which combines exposure therapy using emerging technology like virtual reality, and individual and group therapy sessions, has resulted in 66 percent of participants with combat-related trauma and 76 percent of first responders no longer meeting the diagnostic criteria for PTSD following three weeks of intensive treatment.

The high success rate has caught the attention of the U.S. Department of Defense and the state government. This past legislative session, RESTORES was awarded $1 million to continue their research, education and delivery of no-cost PTSD treatment, thanks in large part to Rep. David Smith and Sen. Tom Wright.

“When you have people who have spent their lives being the helpers, it’s hard to ask for help,” Beidel says. “What we want them to know is that it’s OK to be OK. It’s OK to not be OK. It’s OK to be OK now, and not OK later. There’s no one reaction to trauma, and we want them to know we’re here to help them through it.”