TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – January is Human Trafficking Awareness month, and all day we’ve been highlighting the problem, the victims, and the brave men and women fighting to combat the epidemic.

One of the greatest challenges is helping people understand what human trafficking is. Believe it or not, even first responders are still learning how to spot it.

“It’s in plain sight,” explained Pasco County Sheriff’s Office Corporal Alan Wilkett. “It’s modern-day slavery.”

Corporal Wilkett is the first to tell you firefighters, EMTs and law enforcement officials are the ones who have to be able to help victims, but that requires overcoming a major hurdle — identifying those victims in the first place.

That’s why he participated in a recent seminar at St. Petersburg College aimed at training first responders on how to identify human trafficking and its victims.

“Rarely do they self-report. They don’t self-report for various reasons. One because they’re brainwashed,” Wilkett said.

A woman named Kim, who is a human trafficking survivor, also spoke to first responders at the seminar.

“I was the perfect victim because I was very vulnerable. I was looking for love, attention and affection,” she said.

She said emergency responders often get frontline access to victims who may otherwise be overlooked.

“They need to know not what they think but what it truly is so that way they can go out and prevent it or identify it so they can help the victims out there that still need to be rescued,” she explained.

Special Agent Kevin Sibley heads Tampa’s Homeland Security Investigations and said human trafficking is not smuggling as many people believe. It’s manipulating through forced labor and/or sex, and it happens everywhere.

“Trafficking doesn’t care about where you’re from or the color of your skin, your religion, has no socio-economic demographics tied to it,” Sibley said.
“Everyone is a potential trafficking victim.”

So, the learning curve for even the experts is steep and the fight to save victims very real.