A year after mass shooting, Monterey Park’s fire chief reflects – Press Enterprise

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Through most of his career, Monterey Park Fire Chief Matthew Hallock would absorb the news of mass shootings with the discerning eye of a first responder, but with understandable detachment.

His department trained. He cared. His instinct was to think, “what if it happened here.” But year after year, shooting after shooting, they never did.

Small suburban L.A. town. Tight-knit, peaceful community. That nightmare could not possibly come to Monterey Park. And then, on a celebratory evening in his city, the dispatch came: “It happened,” he said.

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10:20 p.m., Jan. 21, 2023. Star Ballroom Dance Studio on Garvey Avenue. Mass shooter. Multiple casualties.

‘The Trauma Bucket’

Hallock’s small department of firefighters and paramedics – on the first night of a 48-hour shift — would respond to a scene that up until then was the kind that only happened in other places. Eighteen of his staff were on the scene that night, ranging from a seasoned veteran with decades of experience to the youngest with only three months on the job. Most had less than five years of service.

They went in. They found death and they tended to survivors. Within 27 minutes, they’d treated and transported anyone they could to hospitals. All the while, they were dealing with an awareness that a shooter was still on the loose. And for a young team, they were faced with a scene that even the most seasoned veterans might never see in an entire career.

Monterey Park Fire Chief Matthew Hallock says on Tuesday, January 31, 2023 during a press conference at Monterey Park City Hall that he is concerned he may loose some first responders after what they experience at the Monterey Park mass shooting site. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)
Monterey Park Fire Chief Matthew Hallock says on Tuesday, January 31, 2023 during a press conference at Monterey Park City Hall that he is concerned he may loose some first responders after what they experience at the Monterey Park mass shooting site. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Hallock calls it the trauma bucket. Most first responders fill it up over several years of experience.

“These young firefighters filled it up that night,” said Hallock.

“I was very concerned about that level trauma that night,” he said, adding he was acutely aware of elevated risks of suicide among first responders.

‘Coming back’

By Jan. 31, 2023, four had not returned to work since the shooting, and at the time it was unclear if they would ever come back, given the trauma from the scene they encountered.

Then City Manager Rob Bow even apologized for not intervening sooner as a city to tend to the emotional needs of the staff.

“The trauma that these first responders experience in words of our fire chief, Matt Hallock, could cause everlasting effects leading to an end of a career,” he said at the time. “I would like to publicly apologize to the fire service community and our very own fire department for not intervening sooner, as the dialogue continued throughout the first week.”

Support did come though. Under their shift, many firefighters would return to work after four days. But they would return to counseling, which has continued to be available throughout the year.

Two of the four who didn’t initially return have come back to the department, Hallock said.

As the year anniversary of the shootings is marked with a vigil at City Hall on Sunday, Hallock, who started as a reserve in the fire service in 1994, was reflective.

“It’s been a challenging road, and every day is a little better,” he said.

Hallock himself was hit hard. He’s from a generation of firefighters who began their years training for mass casualty events such as earthquakes and hazardous materials situations. Active shooters were still in the distance. The days when so called SWAT Medics would be carrying handguns to “hot zones” were a thing of the imagination. Not reality.

And yet, even with all the training, “you get in, and you start managing, and you do the best you can to make sure your community is taken care of. It’s been a process for me,” he acknowledged.

The visit

As Hallock noted, firefighters often don’t see the “the other side” of a call. They respond. They transport. The do the work. And then they leave. They go on to the next call for service.

On Jan. 21, 2023, they were part of the story, though. In their own way, they were impacted, too.

That’s why a recent visit from the family of Diana Tom was huge, Hallock said.

Tom was among the injured they transported. She clung to life for 24 hours at LAC+USC Medical Center before becoming the 11th to lose her life in the mass shooting. She died from critical injuries on Sunday, Jan. 22.

On Jan. 13, Tom’s family visited the Monterey Park fire station. There was thanks. There was gratitude. There was acknowledgment, both of what the firefighters did that day and Tom’s life. For Tom’s family, it was the culmination of a first year of healing. For Hallock and the firefighters and paramedics he leads, it was a moment that brought the year to a kind of full circle.

“Just them expressing gratitude to the firefighters, that brought it all together,” he said. “This is why we do what we do. A year later, to see this family so impacted and yet they took time out of their day to talk to us… . That meant a lot.”

It was a kind of missing piece for Hallock, who said that among the crew meeting with the family were two firefighters on duty the day of the shooting.

These days, Hallock is mindful of his counterparts who must respond to their own mass shootings across the country. And there were hundreds after Monterey Park. He found himself reaching out to fellow chiefs to offer support after tragedies, just as he got similar calls after his city’s.

Hallock was planning to attend Sunday’s candlelight vigil. He’ll be remembering. He’ll be listening. And he’s finding solace in the fact that even amid tragedy, there were survivors.

“Lives were lost that night,” he said. “But lives were saved, too.”

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