Snowstorm Study to Gauge Responder Stress

Researchers from the University at Buffalo plan to study an October 2006 snowstorm to determine whether the performance of emergency responders during the snowstorm was significantly impaired when responders were worried about their own safety or the safety of their families.

The goal of the research, which is being funded by a $30,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, is to gather more information on what the researchers believe is a "critical issue in effective disaster mitigation."

"Our first goal is to study the effectiveness of first responders in the context of emotional pressures," said H.R. Rao, Ph.D., professor of management science and systems in the University at Buffalo School of Management and principal investigator for the project. "This natural disaster provided a unique time-limited opportunity to examine and understand the differences between the different groups of first responders."

Disaster planning, response and mitigation are components of the university's research focus on "extreme events."

Snowstorm Spared Some Areas

The snowstorm that buffeted western New York in October caused extensive damage and power outages. Yet, despite the widespread problems, pockets of the region remained unaffected. This resulted in a mix of first responders, some of whom were affected by the disaster either directly or indirectly (families and significant others) and some who were not affected.

In addition to the first responders, the recovery effort was supported by second responders such as the National Guard, which arrived days after the event.

"First responders who were personally affected by the storm will be compared with those who were not affected, as well as with the second responders such as the National Guard, on measures including psychological distress and its effect on decision-making," Rao said.

Responders' Perceptions to be Studied

Other goals of the project include determining how and when first responders shifted from normal incident response patterns to disaster-level patterns and whether perceptions had changed among first responders after they experienced the unprecedented storm.

"Prior research has shown that populations that have not experienced major disasters tend to believe they are less-vulnerable and better-prepared than their peers in disaster-prone areas," Rao said. "However, less is known about how perceptions change if these same populations encounter a disastrous event."

The investigators expect that the information from the research will contribute to the current body of applied knowledge in the disaster response literature and to policy implementation regarding questions of how first responders respond to, and recover from, natural disasters.

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