The call can come at any moment. A fire, a car crash or something worse. Whatever it is, Drew Buckner is ready.
Unlike the firefighters with whom he frequently works, Buckner doesn’t spin down a pole and jump into Nomex pants. Instead, he grabs a few items – a flashlight, a radio and sometimes a Bible – and calmly climbs behind the wheel.
Buckner doesn’t always arrive first at the scene. Sometimes, it’s been 30 minutes or more since tragedy struck. But he is a first responder nonetheless. While paramedics are responding to the needs of the victims before them, Buckner is performing emotional triage; treating victims whose wounds are more than skin deep.
Buckner is the chaplain.
The Texas native and former pastor has worked as the chaplain for the Kalispell Fire Department, Kalispell Police Department, Flathead County Sheriff’s Office, and the ALERT Air Ambulance for a decade. As chaplain he offers comfort to people in some of their darkest times as well as guidance and advice to the first responders who often work in emotionally trying situations.
The chaplaincy dates back centuries and is often assigned to a military unit, fire department or hospital. There are even references to priests accompanying troops into battle in the Old Testament. In Montana, most fire and police departments in large communities have full-time chaplains. Until a decade ago, most Flathead chaplains were part-time and only worked a few times a month.
In 2005, two firefighters approached local ministers about starting a more permanent program. Among the candidates they pitched was Buckner, who had moved to the Kalispell area in 2001. Buckner said he had never considered becoming a chaplain but he was drawn to the challenges of the job. He and a handful of other volunteers began working with the Kalispell Fire Department soon after.
“It’s very different than being a pastor at a church because things are usually pretty calm at a church,” said Steve Snipstead, a pastor at Faith Lutheran Church in Kalispell and volunteer chaplain for the last five years.
When Buckner first arrives at a scene he often receives a quick briefing from the incident commander and then looks to talk to the people involved. Sometimes people are surprised to find that a chaplain has been dispatched to the scene, he said, but they are usually appreciative of his presence. Last week, that meant spending time with a man and his daughter who were involved in a car accident in Kalispell. After checking that the man and his child were OK, Buckner learned the man’s wife had been transported to the hospital. Buckner gave them a ride to the hospital and then spent time with them waiting for news in the lobby.
“When you go to a scene you’re stepping into a crisis,” he said. “You’re meeting people of different educational and economical backgrounds, but none of that matters because traumatic events impact all of us the same.”
Buckner, a soft-spoken 54-year-old with a slight Texas drawl, rarely talks about religion when he’s working and said most of his job is to comfort people in a time of need. He said in some instances he doesn’t even speak, just quickly lets people know that he’s available should they need him.
Sgt. Doug Overman, a 16-year veteran of the Kalispell Police Department, said Buckner is a great resource at hectic scenes.
“It takes a lot of pressure off of us so that we can do our job,” he said.
Buckner said one of the hardest parts of the job is delivering a death notification. Although there has never been an instance where he wanted to quit his job, there are calls he wishes he never had to go on.
“It’s tough knowing that you’re about to introduce this person to the worst day of their life,” he said of informing people that a loved one has died. “No one can change the circumstance in that moment, but we do everything we can to comfort someone.”
Realizing the value of the chaplain services, Kalispell Police and Fire and the Sheriff’s Office worked together to create the Braveheart Chaplain Ministry. Buckner, who left his pastoral job, became the departments’ full-time chaplain and the executive director of the nonprofit in 2010. Buckner also helps organize the volunteer chaplains who work on-call.
As the full-time chaplain, Buckner has a small office inside the Kalispell Fire Department and that makes him available to police and firefighters. Although going to car wrecks and fires is the public perception of the chaplaincy, Buckner spends much of his time working with first responders and helping them cope with some of the more traumatic things they see.
“You get past the gear and the guns and you realize that all of these people are still human,” he said. “They have the same emotions as all of us… I’m still a pastor, it’s just that my whole congregation is in uniform now.”
Buckner said police officers are often the toughest of his congregation to get to know, but over time he’s built an unquestionable level of trust. To do that, he often goes on ride-alongs and trains with officers to build those relationships.
Joel Bartholomew, who has worked at the police department for more than three years, said he frequently relies on Buckner to talk about what he’s seen in the line of duty; “It’s just good to talk things out.” The same goes for Overman.
“It’s good to have someone who knows the job and someone you trust,” he said. “Drew is an excellent resource.”
When asked how he deals with his own emotions, Buckner said he relies on a piece of advice he received from an old firefighter: to remember that the tragedy you are responding to isn’t your own. While he has seen more crime scenes than he would like to, over time the memories fade and he focuses on his job of helping others.
Overman said Buckner’s work is priceless in the heat of the moment.
“Drew is able to tend to the human components of an incident which enables us to deal with the mechanical parts of it,” he said.
At the scene of a crash or fire, Buckner provides a calm voice amid crisis. He offers help to countless people every year, even if it’s only for a few minutes.
“I’m in people’s lives for very brief moments but they are always intense moments,” he said. “It’s almost like emotional triage.”