Stress is a problem faced by everyone. But it is a critical problem when it comes to disaster management. First responders such as firemen, police officers, and rescue experts are forced to do so many things in just a short period. They encounter an enormous amount of stress and they are negatively affected by it. However, they are not aware that their performance and decision-making process is already compromised. There is therefore a need to find a way to deal with stress. If first responders and emergency disaster teams are unaware of this problem then the quality of their decisions will deteriorate and instead of saving lives, they include their own in the list of casualties.
There is a field in management that has witnessed the impact of stress when it comes to leadership. This is none other than crisis management (Carll, p.276). It is a field of management where leaders are called upon to handle a critical incident or a situation that can go from bad to worse in just a short notice (Myers & Wee, p.148). This can be seen when it comes to disaster response and emergency responders.
It can be said that there are two major sources of disaster, one is man-made and the other is natural (Fink, p.194). The example of the first is the infamous September 11 terrorist attack on American soil. An example of the second type is Hurricane Katrina. In situations like these, the government wants America to be prepared to handle any emergency and thus created two major organizations to handle an appropriate response and to continually design and improve methodologies to prepare people, lessen the impact of the disaster, and appropriate recovery actions.
In this regard, the United States government established the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Both organizations are the primary governmental agencies at the Federal level tasked with coordinating the emergency response for major disasters in both preparedness and recovery aspects. FEMA is an agency of the United States Department of Homeland Security responsible for emergency preparedness and response to a catastrophe.
Disaster strikes without prior warning and the local community do its best to respond by a disaster management plan put in place beforehand (Norris, p.6). But there are times when a natural calamity or act of terrorism is so overwhelming that the local community could not respond immediately and effectively. This means that local law enforcement agencies and emergency response units cannot help minimize damage and perform adequate recovery operations that it has to call for help and back-up and here is when FEMA takes its cue and enters the scene.
FEMA’s acid test came in the form of Hurricane Katrina. After the said event the American people concluded that the said organization looked good on paper but when tested in real-life emergencies it failed miserably. In the wake of the disaster, FEMA seemed to be paralyzed as recovery operations were either significantly absent or just as chaotic as the flooded streets of Louisiana.
As with any emergency, events can happen very quickly leaving no time for proper evaluation of actions to be taken. Almost everything is done instinctively, quick reactions honed by training and by the thorough familiarity of the mission goals.
One of the reasons for the failure can be attributed to the amount of stress that the leaders had to deal with (Reyes & Jacobs, p.146). They found it the hard way that they were not ready to cope with the avalanche of stress that they encountered. Many safety professionals will say that there is a major difference between what occurs in training and what occurs in the field (Corales, p.95). The rush of adrenaline, confusion, and unpredictable human behavior are just some of the problems that emergency personnel have to contend with. Most of the time they are overwhelmed by workload (Flin, p.10). They have to be taught how to deal with stress (Schneid, p.37) In this way they will be more effective in the field (Zsambok & Klien, p.125).
Stress and Its Effects
If an organization does not have a system established to deal with stress then the leaders will be overwhelmed to the point of paralysis (Dietrich & Jochum, p.93). When there is a leadership vacuum then the members will feel lost and begin to make mistakes.
In the case of a major disaster like Katrina and September 11, a well-prepared team and strong leadership are needed (Walter & Edgar, p.33). However, the preparation phase is just the beginning. Emergency managers are faced with a myriad of risks (Fullerton, p.4). These risks can range from the risk of failure due to an ill-planned emergency response, to the risk of having to deal with the death of a team member. But none is more dangerous than being overwhelmed by stress and impact of the magnitude of the work that has to be accomplished in the first few hours of the event (Cash & Weiner, p.252).
The emergency manager can be so caught up in his role and the emergency at hand that he could force himself to do more than he can handle (McEvoy, p.53). The high level of stress can do untold harm to the team, to the people involved, and to the health and safety of the manager (Aghababian, p.29). The desire to cover much ground and to accomplish more than expected will create stress (Neria, p.323). This will then lead to fatigue that in turn will lead to costly mistakes (Orto, p.475). On the scene, the manager experiencing this problem is prone to issue orders that are irrational and dangerous. But the manager is oblivious to the effect of stress and will continue to do so until replaced or relieved by another leader of equal competence (Dattilio, p.99).
It must be pointed out that two kinds of stress can be experienced by first responders and emergency managers (Ayers, p.405). The first one is the stress generated by the complexity of the problem and the need to deal with it as soon as possible (Colaprete, p.41). The second type is the stress that lingers on even after the crisis has been resolved (Rosen, p.195). The effect of this stress will not end when the fire has been extinguished when a live bomb has been disarmed, or when everybody is safely home or in the hospital. The emergency manager will carry the effects of the stressful events to his home and all areas of his life (Green, p.72).
An example of critical incident stress was reported by helping professionals that include the following: “death of children, injury to children, death of any person, threatening events, knowing the victim, and grotesque sights and sounds exhibited by victims” (Morrissette, p.72). This is probably the reason why there are procedures like the Critical Incident Stress Debriefing that will be discussed in detail below.
Critical Incident Stress Debriefing
As mentioned before, the cycle of emergency preparedness and response does not end in the diffusion of a tense situation but it carries over in the days and weeks in the aftermath of the disaster (Litz, p.99). A psychological need must be addressed after the physical aspect of safety has been dealt with (Miller, p.105). Mental-health workers are now promoting the importance of taking care of the mind as well as the body (Schein, p.29).
The Critical Incident Stress Debriefing is part of the major arsenal of weapons used to combat the effects of trauma in a very stressful situation (O’Donnell, p.445). The related tools that accompany CISD are the following: pre-crisis intervention; defusing; one-on-one crisis counseling or support; family crisis intervention and organizational consultation and; follow-up and referral mechanisms for assessment (Seaward, p.93). It is important to understand the purpose and significance of CISD (Ronan, p.122).
CISD allows emergency response workers to verbalize what they feel and what they have seen while attempting to deal with a stressful situation (Tehrani, p.208). It is widely believed to be helpful to the participants and also provides feedback to improve the emergency plan that they will use in the future (Oher, p.372).
It will be helpful if a psychiatrist is present in these sessions (Ursano, p.127). The said specialist will be able to detect if the participants could no longer handle further exposure and suggest removal from the scene (Friedman, p.27). Most importantly the psychiatrist can expedite the need for treatment and therefore prevent the situation from becoming worse thereby saving lives. This is part of a continuous process in the overall disaster management scheme (Everly & Lating, p.400).
Emergency responders experience a great deal of stress. They are overburdened by the need to solve a host of problems using minimal resources. Many are overwhelmed and make mistakes that can exacerbate the already critical situation. The stress can force emergency responders and leaders to make crucial mistakes. Stress has negatively affected the decision-making process. One way to deal with it is to train emergency responders on what to expect in the field. The second way to deal with stress is to implement a Critical Incident Stress Debriefing to keep emergency responders mentally fit to do their job.
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