First responder family distraction syndrome.
Article Type: Column
Subject: Emergency medical services (Usage)
Natural disasters (United States)
Natural disasters (Imports)
Natural disasters (Analysis)
Public health (Analysis)
Author: Fair, David J.
Pub Date: 06/22/2011
Publication: Name: Annals of the American Psychotherapy Association Publisher: American Psychotherapy Association Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Psychology and mental health Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 American Psychotherapy Association ISSN: 1535-4075
Issue: Date: Summer, 2011 Source Volume: 14 Source Issue: 2
Topic: Event Code: 643 Imports
Product: Product Code: 8000120 Public Health Care; 9005200 Health Programs-Total Govt; 9105200 Health Programs NAICS Code: 62 Health Care and Social Assistance; 923 Administration of Human Resource Programs; 92312 Administration of Public Health Programs SIC Code: 8062 General medical & surgical hospitals
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States
Accession Number: 264672500

As a first responder with an Emergency Services Team deployed to hurricanes Katrina and Rita, I observed a phenomenon that occurred among a number of first responders: They were so gravely concerned about their family members that they had a difficult time keeping their minds on the job. That is totally understandable, but at a time when their heads needed to be clear and their minds sharp, they were placing themselves in harm's way.

We know that when people are distracted, they are more prone to accidents and mistakes. Even when going on autopilot and having their training kick in, the interference from other, overriding emotional factors can short-circuit the things that should be foremost in their minds.

During my own deployments, I had noticed that I was distracted by what was going on back home with my family, even my pets. As I pondered why this occurred, it became apparent to me that if I had better prepared for disaster myself--if I had done the things I knew to do--I would be far less worried about my family, because I would know they were taken care of.

The literature tells us that at least one-third of American citizens are resistant to emergency preparedness, even preparing with the basics. To some degree, I think people believe that if they don't think about something--if they don't prepare or acknowledge that a disaster could happen--then it won't. We know that is just magical thinking.

In addition to preparing physically for a disaster with food, water, first-aid supplies, and a plan, we must also prepare our minds. I call that creating a Level III mind-set. Those of us in law enforcement don't hesitate to purchase one of the safest gun holsters we can buy, typically a Level III. We want it to be as difficult as possible for the bad guy to get our gun.

With the Level III mind-set, we should be making it as hard as possible for the bad guy (stress and anxiety) to capture our minds.

Preparing for our families in the event of a disaster doesn't have to cost a lot of money. As a matter of fact, if we pick up a few extra things each time we go to the store, we hardly notice the extra cost.

All disasters begin and end locally. That means we must be prepared on the front end of a disaster for us and our families to be self-sustaining for the first 72 hours. We must be able to survive for three days on our own until points of distribution (PODs) are set up by those coming to our aid from outside the disaster area.

The literature says we need to store one gallon of water a day per person to take care of our consumption and sanitary needs. So for a family of four for three days, we would need a minimum of 12 gallons of water.

We can live much longer without food than without water, but there is no need to go hungry if we are prepared, so we want to store up enough nonperishable food to last three days for each of our family members.

Next: first-aid supplies. That means a really good first-aid kit, and included with it should be at least three days worth of medications that family members need.

A trip to the hardware store is next. Plenty of flashlights and batteries. We need cell phones with backup batteries and/or a hand-cranked charger. A battery-operated NOAA all-hazards radio. A battery-operated AM/FM radio for the news. Additionally, we need proper tools to turn off the gas and water lines to our home in an emergency.

Each family should have a "go bag" of similar supplies in their vehicles in case they should have to evacuate or are caught away from home. Likewise, your workplace should be similarly stocked.

If it's a biological threat, the family may need to stay at home and shelter in place. Therefore, we need lots of plastic sheeting and duct tape to be able to cover windows, doors, and other areas where air can get into the house from the outside.

We must have a plan. Where will the family meet if a disaster strikes and everyone is not at home? We must have a list of important telephone numbers and select at least one relative who lives out of state that family members can call and give vital information to. If you can't contact each other, attempt to contact that relative.

It is important to remember that cell phone service is often down in a disaster. However, text messaging will often work when a voice message won't. So if the towers seem to be down for voice service, try text messaging or one of the social media networks like Facebook or Twitter.

When first responders prepare for the worst, when they know they have prepared for their family and their loved ones to survive for a minimum of 72 hours, it eases their minds and they are better able to do their jobs.

For the Level III mind-set, we must prepare our minds and know that when we are under stress, our fine motor skills are adversely affected. One of the most helpful things we can do to maintain the right mind-set is to learn proper breathing. This is taught to soldiers on the range and to responders answering emergency calls.

Normally when we are under stress, we take shallow breaths. This is the worst thing we can do. If we take control of our breathing, we take control of the stressful situation.

We must take full deep breaths. For a slow count of three, we inhale through the nose. Hold it for another count of three, and then for a slow three count, exhale through the mouth, as if slowly blowing the stress out. Do this three to four times. This breathing exercise is guaranteed to take control of your breathing and start to relax you. The next time you are in a stressful situation, try it. It works.

Now you are in a position to better handle a disaster situation. By preparing for a disaster, you will be far less likely to suffer First Responder Family Distraction Syndrome. You will be far more apt to keep your mind on your job, stay safer, and perform your job more successfully. Likewise, with the Level III mind-set, you will be able to control stressful situations by controlling your breathing.

Make sure you stay safe by preparing your family to be safe in disaster situations, and be spiritually prepared by keeping Bibles and other literature of your faith tradition close at hand to offer hope and help in disasters.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) list of the top 10 natural disasters to affect the United States.*

1. Hurricane Katrina (2005)

2. Northridge Earthquake (1994)

3. Hurricane Georges (1998)

4. Hurricane Ivan (2004)

5. Hurricane Andrew (1992)

6. Hurricane Charley (2004)

7. Hurricane Frances (2004)

8. Hurricane Jeanne (2004)

9.Tropical Storm Allison (2001)

10. Hurricane Hugo (1989)

* The top 10 U.S. natural disasters, based on the total costs of federal relief dollars paid out.

DAVID J. FAIR, PhD, CHS-V, CMC, is a member of the ABCHS Executive Advisory Board and chair of the ABCMC. Fair is president and CEO of Homeland Crisis Institute. As a Master Chaplain, Fair has served at dozens of disasters, including Ground Zero following 9/11, hurricanes Katrina and Ike, the NASA space shuttle disaster, the Fort Hood shootings, and the Haitian earthquake.

By Chaplain David J. Fair, PhD Certified In Homeland Security Level V, Certified Master Chaplain
Gale Copyright: Copyright 2011 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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