Disaster Psychology and Team Organization
Pulling It All Together
In previous chapters you have learned specific strategies and tasks to use as
a CERT member.
In this chapter you will learn to pull those strategies together
in the team environment, using the principles of the Incident Command System as
Emergency response teams must be flexible, able to adapt to the needs of a
Part of the organizational challenge following a disaster is
to be able to:
◦ Size up the scope and requirements of the situation.
◦ Identify resources as they become available.
◦ Deploy those resources in a coordinated manner.
Continue the size-up, assessment, and deployment process on an ongoing basis
as more becomes known about the post-disaster situation.
As an individual volunteer, you must be ready to function in various team
roles perhaps wear more than one "hat" at a time or "change
hats" as the availability of resources changes. You will begin by assessing
and managing your own personal situation, then that of the immediately adjacent
area (neighbors or coworkers), and then join others in forming response teams.
This type of concentric development results in an evolving team structure and
requires flexibility both in its members and its managers. In this chapter you
will learn to use a basic organizational framework for flexible disaster
When response teams assist disaster victims, physical assistance may be only
part of what victims need from the volunteer workforce. "Psychological
first aid" for disaster-induced stress and trauma may also be required. In
preparation for this role, we begin with an overview of the psychological impact
of disaster on the disaster survivors.
Phases Of A Crisis
Disaster survivors normally experience a range of psychological and
physiological reactions, the strength and type of which depend on several
◦ Prior experience with the same or a similar event.
◦ The intensity of the disruption.
◦ The length of time that has elapsed between the event occurrence and the
◦ Individual feelings that there is no escape, which sets the stage for panic.
◦ The emotional strength of the individual.
Survivors reactions may become more intense as the amount of disruption to
their lives increases. That is, the more the survivors lives are disrupted,
the greater their psychological and physiological reactions may become.
Some research studies have indicated that survivors go through distinct
emotional phases following a disaster:
In the impact phase, survivors do not panic and may, in fact,
show no emotion. They do what they must to keep themselves and their families
In the inventory phase, which immediately follows the
event, survivors assess damage and try to locate other survivors. During this
phase, routine social ties tend to be discarded in favor of the more functional
relationships required for initial response activities such as search and rescue
and emergency medical operations.
In the rescue phase, emergency services personnel,
including CERTs, are responding and survivors are willing to take their
direction from these groups without protest. They exhibit a sense of trust that
their rescuers will address their needs and that they can then put their lives
together quickly. This is why CERT identification, such as helmets and vests, is
In the recovery phase, however, survivors may believe
that rescue efforts are not proceeding quickly enough. That feeling, combined
with other emotional stressors (for example, dealing with insurance adjustors
and having to find temporary living accommodations), may cause survivors to pull
together against their rescuers.
As CERT members, you should expect that survivors will show psychological
effects from the impact of the event and that, at some point, some degree of
psychological warfare will be directed toward you. You should expect to see a
range of responses that will vary from person to person. You should not,
however, take the survivors comments and actions personally. Rather, approach
these responses as part of the psychological impact of the event not related to
anything that you or your fellow rescuers have done.
Post-Event Psychological and Physiological Symptoms
Following an abnormally stressful event such as a disaster, people normally
experience a range of psychological and physiological reactions even as they put
the pieces back together. The following are some common responses:
Psychological Symptoms &
◦ Irritability or anger. Denial. Loss of appetite.
◦ Self-blame, blaming others. Mood swings. Headaches, chest pain.
◦ Isolation, withdrawal. Diarrhea, Stomach pain, nausea.
◦ Fear of recurrence. Hyperactivity. Feeling stunned, numb, or overwhelmed.
◦ Increase in alcohol or drug consumption. Feeling helpless.
◦ Nightmares. Concentration and memory problems.
◦ Inability to sleep. Sadness, depression, grief.
◦ Fatigue, low energy.
The intensity, timing, and duration of such responses will vary from person
They may be:
◦ Acute or mild.
◦ Immediate and/or delayed.
◦ Cumulative in intensity.
Children also may experience psychological or physical upset following a
disaster. These feelings may not last long, but it is not uncommon to have
disturbing reactions many months after the event.
It is important to remember that emotional responses apply to both
disaster victims and rescue personnel. Be alert to signs of disaster trauma in
yourself and coworkers, and take steps to alleviate stress. Also, incorporate
stress-relieving elements (exercise, rest, good nutrition) into your everyday
life to better prepare yourself for disaster situations.
ONE: Humanizing the Rescue Operation
The rescue operation can be made more responsive to both survivors and
rescuers psychological needs if their feelings are recognized. Psychologists
encourage open, honest expression of emotions as a self-protection mechanism. To
avoid "emotional overload," survivors and rescuers should be allowed
to express their feelings openly as long as doing so does not interfere with the
Listen, but try not to take ownership of others feelings.
TWO: Emotional First Aid For Rescuers
To assist rescue workers in dealing with the effects of disaster-related
stress, CERT managers should try the following approaches:
Brief Personnel. Explain to rescue personnel before the
rescue operation begins what they can expect to see and what they can expect
in terms of emotional responses in themselves and others.
Emphasize Teamwork. Sharing the workload and emotional load with
team members can help to defuse pent-up emotions.
Rotate Personnel. Encourage rescuers to rest and regroup and to
avoid becoming overtired.
Encourage Breaks. Encourage rescuers to take breaks away
from the incident area, to get relief from the stressors associated with
Provide For Proper Nutrition. Provide adequate food for rescue
volunteers. Encourage them to stop and eat properly, drink water or other
electrolyte-replacing fluids, and avoid drinks with caffeine or refined sugar.
Rotate Teams. Team members can talk with each other about their
experiences. This is very important to their psychological health. You are
encouraged to talk with your buddy.
Phase Out Workers Gradually. Do not remove rescuers from their
duties abruptly. Allow rescuers to gradually stand down from the incident by
working from high- to medium- to low-stress areas of the incident. Abrupt
removal causes additional stress.
Furthermore, as a team, CERT members should organize a debriefing after the
operation, in which workers are encouraged to describe what they encountered and
how they felt about it. Experienced rescue workers find these steps helpful in
controlling their own stress levels, but in some cases it may be necessary to
seek help from mental health professionals.
THREE: Emotional First Aid For Victims
To assist disaster victims in dealing with the effects of disaster-related
stress, try the following approaches:
Establish Rapport. Talk to the victims. Encourage them to talk
about their feelings as well as their physical needs.
Listen. If the victim has something to say, take the time to
Show through your response that you understand the
persons concerns or worries and that such feelings are to be expected.
Respect the persons confidence. Dont
repeat personal information to other people.
Using these techniques will provide the survivor the initial comfort and
support he or she needs in taking a first step toward recovery.