Packed inside the back of an RV in the Hill District, a dozen volunteers pulled the tags off bright orange safety vests, slipped the vests over their coats and zipped up, preparing to step into the cold, dark street.
This was just a drill.
The volunteers are in the final stages of training to be a part of FOCUS Pittsburgh’s new trauma response teams, which will, starting on Thanksgiving Day, respond to homicides in Allegheny County and provide immediate, on-site psychological and mental health care to residents and others affected by the violence.
On Monday night, the volunteers with the Hill District nonprofit went through their first drill in the 2900 block of Webster Avenue — practicing approaching a mock crime scene, staying in radio contact with one another, and being aware of their surroundings.
Neighbors peeked out from their homes as the volunteers, wearing reflective vests emblazoned with “Trauma Response Team,” trooped up and down the street. A couple of residents came out of their homes and explored the recreational vehicle, excited to see it up and running.
The volunteers will complete about 40 hours of training before they hit the streets, said the Rev. Paul Abernathy, who runs FOCUS Pittsburgh. They have learned the basics of psychological first aid, mental health first aid and CPR, he said.
Beginning Thursday, Rev. Abernathy plans to be alerted to homicides when they happen and will page the volunteers to see who is available to respond. They’ll rendezvous somewhere near the scene, then ride together on the RV to the homicide.
Teams want to arrive as soon as possible within the first 24 hours after a crime and will try to stay as long as they can during the first 48 hours, Rev. Abernathy said.
“The goal is stabilization, and helping to identify those people who are most adversely affected by this type of trauma,” he said, “And helping transition them to long-term care plans.”
So far, about 15 people have participated in the trauma team’s training, he said, and he’s looking for more volunteers. If there aren’t at least five people available to respond to a scene, the RV can’t go.
The plan is funded in part by a two-year, $150,000 grant from the Allegheny County Health Department, one of two grants the department is distributing to local organizations to combat gun violence by treating it like a public health crisis.
The second, $160,000 grant was awarded to the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Behavioral and Community Health Sciences. Richard Garland, an assistant professor, is leading that effort and has hired two street outreach workers who are focusing on violence prevention through mediation and by building personal relationships with people in Wilkinsburg, Braddock, Rankin, Duquesne, McKeesport and Penn Hills.
On Tuesday, Mr. Garland and Rev. Abernathy took the RV for a drive through Rankin and Braddock, hoping to familiarize residents to the vehicle and begin to let neighbors know what to expect when the RV, formerly used as a mobile health clinic, shows up.
They stopped to shoot hoops at a basketball court in Hawkins Village, a public housing complex in Rankin, and spoke with people at a street corner in Braddock. As the teams wrap up their final training drills, Rev. Abernathy hopes the volunteers will be ready to help community members.
“When we talk about trauma, it’s not just gun violence. It’s homelessness, poverty, addiction, abuse, racism — these are all forms of trauma,” he said. “And there are communities where they have been inundated with these traumas for generation. So when we look at what these trauma teams are working to do, it’s not only to be there in the moment — that’s our primary goal, stabilization — but there is also a huge potential to begin the healing process.”