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Mental Preparedness for First Responders: Preparing for the Disaster 

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By Dr. Jarrod Sadulski
Faculty Member, Criminal Justice at American Military University

The Department of Homeland Security encompasses 22 different agencies and departments that are on the daily forefront of domestic security. In addition, many DHS agencies have personnel who play first responder roles and are deployed to natural or manmade disasters in the United States.

These agencies include the Coast Guard, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office, and the Office of Operations Coordination.

As a member of the Coast Guard, I have been a part of the DHS since its founding in 2002. I experienced a sudden recall to active duty from the Coast Guard Reserve, following the terrorist attacks on 9/11.

I had just transitioned out of active duty two weeks prior to the attacks. I was driving to prepare for a new civilian management career when I received the call that I was to report to Coast Guard Station Miami Beach immediately. So I remained on active duty in Miami Beach and conducted homeland security operations for the next four years.

Transitioning to an unexpected Title 10 recall following the terrorist attacks placed stress on my family and I. We addressed it through exercise, the development of a proper work-life balance, and peer support.

I have witnessed several other incidents when Coast Guard and DHS personnel were temporarily reassigned from their daily work to assist in natural or manmade disasters away from home. While these responses are important and part of the job, it is also important to examine and mitigate the stress all response personnel face in an emergency.

Emergency personnel who respond to disasters experience a wide range of physical and mental health issues. As a result, it is important to take steps to mitigate the effects of responding to these emergencies.

Step 1: Have a Family Preparedness Plan in Place

Personnel who may be recalled to emergency responder status should have a written plan prepared well in advance. This plan should be coordinated with spouses and family members. It should account for child care, finances (including emergency cash on hand) and changes in work schedules.

The written plan should also take into consideration that communications may be limited during an emergency. Thus the plan should include emergency contact information for family members and their work supervisors. If emergency responders feel confident that their priorities at home are being met, they will be much more effective and focused while in an emergency response role.

Step 2: Complete Deployment Training in Advance

DHS agencies often train emergency personnel on mobilization and de-mobilization. It is important to complete this training, which gives personnel information explaining the different resources and support available to them.

Step 3: Self-Monitor for Problems Following an Event

Emergency responders who are exposed to disasters are at an increased risk of acute stress, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other emotional problems.

DHS personnel and other first responders should learn the signs of emotional problems and PTSD. Symptoms include difficulty moving beyond emotional feelings about an emergency incident, difficulty sleeping and depression.

Studies show that emergency responders are at a substantially higher risk of depression seven months following their participation in a disaster. They are also at a higher risk of acute stress disorder and PTSD 13 months later. Young, single emergency responders are more likely to develop acute stress disorder than older and more experienced responders.

Emergency responders should monitor themselves for signs that they are struggling with their participation in a disaster and seek counseling and guidance through their agency’s Employee Assistance Program.

About the Author

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski has been with the Coast Guard since 1997. His expertise includes infrastructure security, maritime security, homeland security, contraband interdiction and intelligence gathering. He has also received commendations from the Coast Guard.  Presently, Jarrod is a supervisor in the Reserve Program and provides leadership to Reserve members who conduct homeland security, search and rescue, and law enforcement missions.