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Expert: Emotional and Mental Health Essential for Responder Safety

Emergency responders often have to be on the lookout for blatant hazards that harm their physical well-being, but according to Dori Reissman, senior medical advisor with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), they often overlook their mental and emotional health, which equally can take a toll on them.

“The people factor seems to be the thing that we [emergency responders] forget about all the time,” said Reismann during the third annual National Response Team Worker Safety and Health Technical Conference in Washington D.C. “We forget that in order to use the equipment or to prevent the exposure, we have to be aware of our behavior and thinking. Those two have to interact in a successful fashion in order for you achieve safety and health.”

According to Reissman, operational stresses such as team dynamics, systemic issues and knowing who is in control and when are some of the typical hazards responders face, but almost hardly deal with.

“A lot of the stress [in an emergency response environment] comes from how we interact with others,” she said. “These are things we all deal with everyday in our usual job, but when you go into response environment, the usual boundaries are gone and the usual things you anchor your social connections with are gone.”

Fears and Sensory Overload Can Push Responder To Edge

Because of the nature of a disaster environment, response workers have to see and experience situations that can overwhelm them. The sensory overload of death, loss and destruction coupled with social disarray can put even the most competent worker feeling lost and not be able to cooperate properly with his or her team.

In addition, due to information on the potentials for exposure of dangerous toxins, response personnel face the possibility of being exposed or become fearful of getting exposure, especially since they almost always can't feel, see, or taste whatever they are potentially exposed to. Having this fear can cause response personnel to essentially break down, Reismann said, as “what we can create in our minds can very much direct what we do with our actions.”

Techniques Available to Prevent Mental and Emotional Breakdown

When a team member breaks down, it causes the whole group to suffer and affects the effectiveness of the mission, Reissman said. In order to have a response effort run smoothly, Reissman advised quickly determining who should be in command. She asserted that having a backup plan in place is crucial; it's important to know ahead of time who would be the next best person to lead response efforts, in case “the person in charge gets in over [his or her] head.”

She emphasized that this preparedness strategy doesn't mean that the next in line would oust the actual team leader, but only that he or she would help facilitate an effective response.

She also made the following recommendations to build team resilience during a response:

  • Deploy as a team using a “buddy system.”
  • Asses the situation.
  • Monitor occupational safety, health and well-being by anticipating hazards (including psychological ones) and assessing environmental conditions and basic needs.
  • Ensure regular communication by clarifying tasks required for mission success and matching tasks with team member skills.

“We can't prevent ourselves being exposed, we can't change who we are at the core, but there are a lot of ways we can develop techniques,” she emphasized. “We can become aware of what our personal triggers are, become aware of the more effective management schemes that we need to help shape.

“And the fact that we can actually do this in a safe and health manner is critical factor,” she added.

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