Self Care for Personnel
It is a sadly ironic fact that the first ones to help others are often the last to help themselves, a fact that is all too descriptive of the public safety community as a whole. Experience has shown us that when a community is stricken by a disaster, there is no shortage of qualified men and women willing to spend long hours working at providing much-needed rescue and relief to the citizens they are sworn to serve. Past lessons also show that their willingness is often so unquenchable as to exceed their physical and mental capacities. The disaster environment is an inherently dangerous place, so dangerous that vigilance is required to preempt the additional hazards that are posed when we try to exceed our own human limitations. This site will help with managing such tendencies in two ways:
- By offering some established guidelines for self-care;
- By discussing what individuals and organizations can do to minimize debilitating problems among personnel.
It’s called ‘self-care’ because ultimately, it boils down to YOU. By being attentive to your own needs, you can minimize the dangers you face in the disaster environment. By ignoring them, you put yourself and others at risk.
- Pace Yourself. The natural tendency to charge headlong into the mission before you will be particularly strong. This is especially true during the period during and immediately after the onset of relief operations.
- Remember your basic needs. Your participation in the mission doesn’t relieve you of your need for food, water, proper clothing, and sleep.
- If a particular job requires more personnel or equipment than is immediately available, wait. If you need help, ask for it. The road to ruin is devoid of proper backup and equipment.
- If you need time off the line, just ask. Your sense of mission and duty will make this a tough thing to do, but in times like this, it’s best to think long-term:
Question-to-self: How can I keep myself in the game?
Answer-to-self: By taking breaks from the action as needed.
- Ignore the ‘rumor-mill’. Oftentimes, the stuff you hear is based on the fears, hopes, or unfounded expectations of someone who talks too much. Listening to false rumors inevitably aggravates an already difficult situation.Know measures you can take to de-stress. Stuff like talking, expressing your emotions through symbols and rituals, and rotating between more demanding duties and easier ones.
Leadership; it’s more than just a bigger paycheck and increased civil liability. If ever there was a time when strong, competent leadership was needed, it’s during disaster operations. Here are some tips for supervisors and administrators.
- Reduce the danger of exhaustion by implementing shift schedules. Personnel should not exceed 12 hours at work, and the length of time they have off should at least equal the time spent on-duty. Also, allot time for rest periods during shifts.
- Cultivate a supportive environment. Be approachable. Have a plan in place for stress management. Make sure logistical needs are met.
- Find a place away from the scene where your people can go. Give them places to eat and rest that remove them from the disaster environment as much as possible.
- Emphasize top-down vigilance, starting with you. Administrators should disseminate guidelines to supervisors for combating stress, exhaustion, and fatigue. First-line supervisors should establish a system whereby personnel monitor one another for signs of problems.
- Enact good communication at all levels. A lot of the stress that responders face during disaster operations results from poor communication. This is also how rumors get started (see “Ignore the Rumor Mill” above). One way of facilitating this is establishing times and locations for ‘roll call’ meetings for on-going and off-going shifts. Be sure that everyone is briefed on group and individual missions, goals and responsibilities, disaster news, and relevant operational information.
Watch each others’ backs. Sometimes, your colleagues will be so immersed in the disaster mission that they temporarily lose self-awareness.
- Know the signs of stress; the normal ones as well as ones that indicate help is needed
- Pair up. Find someone you will be working with or near throughout the mission. Agree amongst yourselves to monitor each other for signs that a break is needed.
- Know the people you work with everyday. You are in a better position than anyone to know what is normal behavior for those you work with, and to watch for changes.
- Be receptive. Some of the stress for individuals that accumulates during disaster operations may be able to be relieved by simply having someone to talk to. Be present, be attentive, and let them know you’re listening.
This site offers information on disaster stress in a way that is specific to public safety personnel.
Here are some recommendations from FEMA on how public safety personnel can minimize the harmful effects of stress. It's called Tips for Managing and Preventing Stress: A Guide for Emergency and Disaster Response Workers.
The Center for Disease Control offers their Disaster Mental Health Primer as an excellent guide for understanding how disasters impact individuals and communities.
Care for crisis responders, especially self care, is absolutely necessary. Providing Emotional and Physical Support: Helping the Helpers in Times of Crisis, is an article that gives tips on how to do so.