Adventures In Disaster Response

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Image by Keith Allan Moore from Pixabay. This image is not related to the events in the article.
By Daniel J. Mosley, Ed.D
Disaster Mental Health Manager
Fall 2019: Volume 75, Number 2

The Kincade Fire (designated in the Red Cross as DR 182) burned an area over 77,000 acres in Sonoma and Marin Counties in Northern California. At one point, 200,000 residents were under mandatory evacuation orders. Some of the readers of this article may have experienced being evacuated from their homes and know what that dislocation and uncertainty means to one’s sense of emotional well-being. Some are fortunate to have friends and family they can stay with temporarily. Many resort to emergency shelters for their lodging. Visualize entering a church basement that has opened as a Red Cross shelter and you need to find cots and maybe a bit of ‘territory’ for your family.

Now think about the need to provide emotional support to those populating shelters. Here, and in many other arenas of disaster response, is where psychologists and other mental health professionals are essential. As a psychologist, I believe we have skills, regardless of our specialties, to positively impact disaster response in many ways, not only in direct client support, like in shelter support.

There are several avenues for psychologists to help in a disaster response; I am most familiar with the Red Cross system and will speak to that experience. I was asked to respond to the Kincade Fire as a Red Cross volunteer in my capacity as a Disaster Mental Health (DMH) Manager. I have been a DMH volunteer since 1994 and have had the opportunity to assist at all levels of a Disaster Response Operation (ORO). As a volunteer, you do not have to leave home for days at a time to participate. I offer just two examples of tasks that are vital to the overall DRO, but do not ask for you to leave family and your practice: Help your local chapter develop interview questions that help determine if a volunteer is really prepared to deploy; call those who are deployed to check in with them once or twice during their deployment.

Back to my job on DR 182 – each disaster response gets a numerical designation. I was the first deployed DMH to the operation. My initial task was to gain “situational awareness,” a term that makes more sense each time I respond to a disaster. Next, I connected with local Red Cross DMH volunteers, some of whom had been personally affected by the fire (our division DMH lead was depending on a generator during the rolling outages) but were responding to the increasing need for mental health support within the ORO.

The initial needs for OMH in a DRO are with shelter support. In my opinion, shelter workers do the ‘heavy lifting’ in a ORO. Not only do the clients need support, but Red Cross volunteers also need our support. The recognition of the need for worker support led to the creation of a distinct OMH activity in 1993. The appreciation and valuing of the role of OMH has only grown over the years. Psychologists serving as disaster mental health volunteers provide crisis intervention, psychoeducation, problem-solving, and advocacy for clients and other Red Cross workers. Our skills in active listening, encouraging individual’s resilience, as well identifying more serious mental health situations with a triage system, are essential to an effective disaster response.

At one point, there were 16 shelters open in three counties in Northern California. Predicting fire behavior is a science in itself. The Red Cross uses the most up-to-date data to determine how many shelters are needed or may be needed. Preparedness matters: having established MOU’s with schools, churches, and other community venues for their use in sheltering. Can you see a role for a trained mental health professional in preparedness? This involves participating in planning within your local chapter, not leaving home.

The call is sent out for DMH volunteers to accommodate the expected needs, as best as can be forecast.

I had a difficult day when the response from willing, eager DMH volunteers exceeded the need (the winds had turned favorable and evacuation orders were being lifted). I had to ask for volunteers to tum around and return home. Not a nice sound bite for a recruitment brochure, but part of the reality of the constantly changing needs in a DRO. One of the reasons I have continued as a Red Cross volunteer for many years is the unique population that volunteer for this type of work. One of the rewards I get from being a DMH manager is working with so many unique, committed, special people. I regret not getting to know, personally, those who I had to ask to tum around and go back home on this DRO. This was a most unusual situation; we usually do not have enough trained mental health volunteers to cover the demand for our assistance. Remembering self-care becomes another challenge in this work.

A DRO involves a complex organization. Besides the internal Red Cross organizational structure, there are multiple relationships with community and governmental organizations who also have a role in the response. Can you see how expertise in organizational systems, personnel and conflict management would be of value in a DRO? This is a plug for many other opportunities within the Red Cross besides doing “too much like my usual work.” Participating in Emergency Management discussions on priorities and resource allocation, helping frame media messaging to the community are additional ways psychologists can be invaluable in a DRO. Think of how valuable it is for parents to hear advice on how to answer their children’s questions on yet another school shooting. Yes, that is a tough one.

I hope this prompts more questions than it answers. Please use Debbie Shapiro, Ph.D., (Debbieshapiro@mac.com) chair of our WSPA committee on Disaster Response, as your primary contact for questions. Debbie has the support of our local DMH steering committee to connect with anyone interested in following up on this article.

Daniel J. Mosley, Ed.D.
Licensed Psychologist (Washington and Colorado)
303-794-7761, 303-905-4575, dmosley@drdanpsy.com