April 19, 2024

2023 was a landmark year for UCF RESTORES – one marked by innovation and progress. From groundbreaking advancements in virtual reality (VR) PTSD treatment to the launch of all-new training programs and peer support networks, the center continued to blaze trails in trauma treatment and first responder support.

In this Director’s Cut Q&A, we sit down with UCF RESTORES Executive Director Deborah C. Beidel, Ph.D., ABPP, to delve deeper into the year’s achievements and developments, as highlighted in the just-released 2023 Annual Report. Read on for a personal conversation on the origins and evolution of key UCF RESTORES programs, as well as Beidel’s perspective on future objectives for the center.

Thanks for joining us, Dr. Beidel. The 2023 Annual Report highlights, in part, the promise of UCF RESTORES’ virtual reality (VR) treatment tool. The tool is now in its second iteration, with further development being co-managed with AI / MS&T firm Terasynth. Can you bring us back in time to the original creation of that concept? What sparked the idea?

In our team’s meetings with firefighters at the time, they would show pictures of various traumatic event to which they had responded and say, “You need to make a VR scene of this.”.

The idea originated after Orlando-area first responders reached out to us following the Pulse Nightclub tragedy, back in 2016. The VR system we had in use at that time was a great system, but it was limited to about 20 scenarios that were designed for military personnel specifically.

So we started thinking about a system that would be capable of producing unique scenarios – scenes that could be tailored or personalized to different types of trauma. We also wanted to create a tool that could be used by clinicians who were not tech-savvy.

What excites you most about the tool? About VR in healthcare overall?

The system will reside in the cloud and be accessed via the internet; this means that the system will be able to be used via telehealth, which broadens access to it significantly.

I am very excited about our partnership with Terasynth – they are taking our original system to an entirely new level.  To access this type of treatment, all one would need is access to the internet and a set of head-mounted VR goggles, which they would receive from their therapist.

We know that the behavior therapy component of our treatment program can be effectively delivered via the internet. Now, thanks to our partners at Terasynth, therapists across the country – and perhaps around the world – will be able to provide this proven treatment to patients suffering from trauma.

Between Redline RescueTM (2021), Blueline RescueTM (2023), and Goldline RescueTM (2024), UCF RESTORES has now pioneered the first and only peer support network for public safety responders. Can you talk us through the timing of these rollouts, and why they were released in this order? Why did Redline Rescue, designed for firefighters, come first?

Our partners at the Florida Firefighters Safety & Health Collaborative (FFSHC) had the original idea for Redline Rescue. As stated on the website, the concept “grew out of one firefighter’s commitment to resiliency and recovery through connectivity to the community.” Several years ago, we worked with the FFSHC to bring the concept online and raise further awareness for it; ultimately, we had the opportunity to assume ownership of the model and expand it to other public safety first responder groups.

Initially, our work with peer support training focused on the fire service, so we had a larger cadre of peers ready to respond.  As our work with other first responders expanded, it only made sense for us to add other sites – Blueline Rescue for law enforcement and Goldline Rescue for telecommunicators.

Looking ahead, how do you see the Rescue Line platforms evolving?

Our goal is to continue enhancing the sites by adding additional resources based on feedback from the communities we serve, as well as our own observations.

For example, some first responders were reluctant to register with the sites initially because they only wanted to work with other first responders within their own department. So, we modified the site to allow them to indicate that preference.

Right now, we’re in the process of adding a “REACT Refresher” course to each of the websites for first responders who might feel the need to brush up on their peer support skills – perhaps prior to a particular event or peer encounter.

The 2023 report showcases some impressive data on UCF RESTORES’ impact – hundreds of individuals helped and trained, thousands of hours of treatment administered, and much more.
But let’s look beyond the numbers for a moment. Is there a specific moment in 2023 that will stick with you, personally, going forward?

In September, our team had the opportunity to join Florida House Representative Col. (Ret.) David Smith, along with UCF leadership, on the field for a Knights game. President Cartwright gifted the game ball to Rep. Smith, and it was a very special moment.

That one moment stands for something much greater: the continued commitment of Representative Smith and Senator Tom Wright – as well as the entire government of the state of Florida – to allowing our center to provide Florida residents with cutting-edge trauma treatment at no cost.

Their support, as well as that of our private donors, continues to fuel our efforts. And that will absolutely stay with me.

Were there any surprises in 2023 that you can share here?

Our partnership with Terasynth was a bit of a surprise, as our teams met by chance at an event for veterans! When I met with their leadership, I was impressed by their commitment to positively impacting the lives of veterans and first responders.

We share a vision, and our collective skills will allow us to deliver a next-generation product that will change lives.

The annual report provides a comprehensive look at 2023’s achievements, and it also in many ways serves as a roadmap for achievements that lay ahead. What key objectives are driving UCF RESTORES’ mission over the coming years?

UCF RESTORES will continue its focus on modernized treatment options, tools, and resources for public safety first responders. We will also answer calls to expand our reach to other public service occupations who have experienced traumatic events. As we do so, our number one objective is to continue maintaining the high quality of all provided services and offerings.

It’s also vitally important that we recognize the full spectrum of people who might experience trauma in the line of duty.

Too often, we collectively forget about the civilians who serve as integral parts of first responder units – those staffing the medical examiners offices or forensic units, for example. They, too, witness horrific events but they are not always at the forefront of our thoughts. As we continue forward, we need to be more mindful of everyone who works to make our lives safer.

As we were reminded in the report, UCF RESTORES’ work wouldn’t be possible without its dedicated donors, partners, and legislative advocates. What message would you like to convey to those reading who support the organization’s cause?

I know it may sound trite, but thank you for believing in our mission, for listening to our hopes and dreams, and for supporting all those who have suffered from a traumatic event and sought out healing.

UCF RESTORES is merely a vehicle – one that allows anyone and everyone to give back to the veterans, active duty personnel, and first responders who protect and serve us every day.

To learn more about UCF RESTORES’ to-date impact and explore how you can get involved, click here.