A local mental health task force took the next step this week to make sure the community is prepared to help victims if another disaster like the Branch Davidian siege occurs in Waco.

The Mental Health Disaster Response Team Task Force, working with the Heart of Texas Red Cross chapter, agreed Tuesday to set up four committees to organize professional volunteers to be prepared to help victims of a local disaster.

The task force was begun after the Branch Davidian siege, when mental health workers realized that people needed a more coordinated type of counseling.

Studies show that people involved in tragedies do better when they receive immediate mental health services. The task force is designing a program where professional volunteers would help people caught up in such traumatic circumstances as shootings, storms, accidents, fires, crimes or other disasters.

Counselors would work with victims on the scene to help with their mental health needs. They would also help disaster workers who are emotionally affected by the destruction and suffering they see. The work would continue for some time after the situation, until things return to normal.

Need hammered home

Though this is the task force’s second meeting, the need for it was hammered home with the recent spell of violent weather.

“When we almost had that tornado, I thought, ‘Oh, no, another emergency, and we’re not prepared,’” said committee co-chairwoman Vivian Stidvent of the Heart of Texas Mental Health Mental Retardation agency.

She said communities statewide are realizing the necessity of having professionals “right there on the site” of disasters.

“We need to be thinking about particular groups at risk and set up plans to help them,” agreed co-chairwoman Ellie Flynn, a psychologist in private practice.

The group’s goal is to become organized well enough to participate in disaster drills this spring.

The drills are conducted by the McLennan County Office of Emergency Management and involve local law enforcement agencies, hospitals and other emergency and social service agencies, said Harvey Henning of the office of emergency management.

Henning explained how local communities can request aid from the state for disaster services beyond the local government’s capabilities.

“We’ll provide whatever backup you need beyond that which your community can provide,” said Leroy Torres of the Texas Department of Mental Health Mental Retardation of Austin, who attended the meeting.

Four committees were set up during the meeting.

One will oversee volunteer training. Stidvent said proper training is crucial to make the plan work.

In one city, she said, a plan was completed on paper — but after a plane crash, volunteers lined up for on-the-scene counseling refused to go.

“The people were really nervous doing this and begged out,” Flynn said. “They were afraid they’d encounter dead bodies.”

Training in advance

Therefore, she said, volunteer site counselors need to be trained in advance.

“Part of that training needs to be experiential, such as going to a disaster,” Flynn added. It also needs to be understood that those lined up for such duties will drop whatever activities they’ve scheduled to go to the disaster, she said.

More committees

Flynn and Stidvent agreed to head the training committee. They said they also hope to involve Red Cross nurse Fran Barrett, who has extensive experience providing mental health disaster services at hurricane and flood scenes.

A protocol committee will organize how the volunteer professionals will respond to a disaster. That group will be headed by Henning and Lt. Larry Lynch of the McLennan County Sheriff’s Department.

Another committee will recruit and organize the mental health professionals and determine how to tell them where to meet when a disaster occurs.

Louanna Wrchan of the Klaras Center will head the committee.

A public relations and information committee will write brochures for community groups to use, telling how to contact the mental health response team and how to work with it. It will be led by Donna Ragland of the Center for Action Against Sexual Assault, Kay Sheehy of the McLennan County Medical Society and Nyla Alford, Red Cross chapter manager.

Read the Tribune-Herald's 7-part investigative series on the inner workings of the Branch Davidians. Hours after Part Two appeared in print, the ATF raided the group's compound.

Read the Tribune-Herald’s account of the ATF raid on the Branch Davidian compound on Feb. 28, 1993. Four ATF agents and six in the compound were killed in the gunfight.

Read the daily news accounts of the 51-day siege at the Branch Davidian compound near Elk, which began Feb. 28 and lasted until April.

April 19 and beyond: FBI agents began inserting canisters of tear gas into the Branch Davidian compound in the early morning hours. By noon, it was on fire.

Federal officials left the compound site in late May 1993. As identifications of bodies continued, questions about the survivors, the compound and the cult itself began to emerge.

As the world began to take a critical look back at the events and legal proceedings continue, the ATF's bombshell report forces a shakeup at the top after the raid gone "tragically wrong."

In 1994, the surviving Davidians went on trial in San Antonio. Over six weeks, more than 140 witnesses testified, with the verdict coming just two days prior to the anniversary of the ATF raid.

The Rodenville shootout and the 1988 trial, the end of the world in 1959 and more stories from deep in the Trib archives.