Petaluma Valley Baptist Pastor Tom Marcum vividly remembers the first police call he assisted on. "A 32-year-old man died of a massive heart attack in front of his whole family at his birthday party. It instantly became everyone's nightmare," said Marcum.

As the lead volunteer police chaplain with the Petaluma Police Department, Marcum has seen plenty of tragedies in the year and a half he has served. But unlike the sworn officers or emergency crews who meticulously investigate disaster and crime scenes to find answers and close a case, Marcum and the other local pastors who make up the police chaplaincy work to support the people affected by the scene.

"Police and fire bring us in when there's an extreme trauma," said Marcum. "We go to crime and accident scenes to offer emotional support to the people involved. If there's a death, officers stay on the scene until the body is removed. But we stay there as long as the family needs us."

Petaluma's police chaplaincy program began in the mid-1990s and is currently staffed with 11 pastors. The police chaplains also provide overnight and weekend pastoral services to Petaluma Valley Hospital in addition to full-time volunteer support to the police and fire departments. Sgt. Marlin Christensen, who oversees the volunteer chaplains, said the group has become a valuable resource to the public and officers.

"While a lot of departments only use chaplains as a support system for department staff, Petaluma has always placed the emphasis on the public," said Christensen. "To have that extra human component associated with the police department is incredible."

Police Chief Patrick Williams agreed. "Collectively, the chaplains touch our community in ways we would never have the ability to do," he said.

Marcum said that when police officers or firefighters see a need for emotional support at a call, they request a chaplain, who comes to the scene and remains available for anyone who wants to talk with them. Marcum admits that not everyone is cut out for the job.

"It can be very difficult, " he said calmly. "Most of our calls occur at night. When I get up in the middle of the night, my wife gets up and stays awake the entire time I'm gone. Most calls take a couple hours to complete. And when you're there, it's often an intense situation involving tragedy. But having that stable presence can really help people."

Petaluma police chaplains go through rigorous background checks and training before they are allowed to work with the public.

"Our chaplains must pass a full background investigation, have at least five years of successful ministry service with a recognized church and be certified, endorsed or ordained by a recognized religious body," said Christensen. "These are people with credibility who are already full-time pastors. They volunteer their time to take on what can be very difficult work. It's really amazing."

And their presence at police calls has less to do with religion than most people think. While Marcum acknowledges that all the current chaplains belong to some form of Christianity, he said it isn't about forcing religion on anyone.

"We're there during traumatic times," Marcum said. "We take our cues from the people we serve and we support them in any way we can."

Marcum said the background investigation potential chaplains undergo is extremely thorough.

"I had people I know who I hadn't spoken to in years calling me, asking why the police were investigating me," Marcum said with a smile. "They wanted to know what I had done."

After the background check and interviews with the police chief, chaplains begin responding to some of the city's most difficult situations. The work includes tragedy counseling, death notifications and waiting with victims until loved ones arrive.

David Miller is a pastor at St. John's Anglican Church in Petaluma and has been a police chaplain for eight years. His admiration for emergency personnel has grown since he began volunteering his time.

"The daily stress they are under and the challenges they face really showed me what great people we have working here and how blessed we are as a community," said Miller.

Marcum distinctly remembers his first call because of the strong emotions the family felt.

"Here was an entire family, young and old, who had gathered together to celebrate this young man's life, and instead, they wound up watching his death," he said. "In this case, there were so many people at the hospital that we had two chaplains going from person to person — talking and listening."

Marcum said the hardest calls involve children. Earlier this year he was called to the Petaluma Valley Hospital. "A 21-year-old woman had come to the hospital for her last doctor's check-up during her pregnancy," he said quietly, his eyes staring off into the distance. "She left the hospital feeling fine, only to return later that day about to give birth. Instead, her baby died in her stomach. So there I was, in a delivery room with 20 people who had shown up for the birth of a new baby. The room was completely silent, except for the sobs from this young woman. It was heart-wrenching."

Because calls are frequently emotionally draining, each chaplain only responds to one serious incident per week. Miller said there was a time when chaplains responded to multiple calls.

"While some calls are simple, the tough ones can really wear you out," he said. "Reducing the calls to one serious incident per week has helped a lot."

Marcum said the chaplains also meet at the police station once a month to discuss difficult cases, learn new training techniques and support one another.

"In my normal pastor world, I spend a lot of time with people who have similar beliefs as me," said Marcum. "Being a police chaplain has given me the opportunity to spend time with people not of my faith. It has really helped me realize there is a sense of community and caring between all of us."

(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at janelle.wetzstein@arguscourier.com)