Disaster Responders

As anyone who has been a disaster responder knows, disasters are stressful. In the first days, weeks, or sometimes months after a disaster, many survivors show signs and symptoms of stress, such as fear, anxiety, sadness, shame, feeling numb, disorientation, difficulty concentrating, trouble sleeping, being "on edge," and problems at work and school. Some survivors experience more severe reactions, including severe anxiety or depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, and using more alcohol or other drugs.

These effects are not limited to disaster survivors; they also may occur in disaster responders. In fact, responders may be at risk for severe reactions from secondary traumatic stress as survivors share their experiences with them. Responders commonly serve in their own disaster-affected communities, and both severe exposure to a disaster and living in a community that has been disrupted or traumatized by a disaster are risk factors for severe disaster reactions.

Fortunately, there are steps you can take as a responder to help survivors cope with their reactions, support survivors in activating their positive coping strategies, and protect your own behavioral health. This installment of the SAMHSA Disaster Behavioral Health Information Series (DBHIS) includes resources you can use to respond effectively, restore survivor well-being, and care for yourself, so that you can continue to serve.

Intended for responders in a wide range of fields—police, firefighters, emergency medical services personnel, humanitarian aid workers, public officials, and emergency managers—resources address these topics:

  • Interventions such as Psychological First Aid that you can use to support disaster survivors
  • Screening tools to help you assess survivors for alcohol use disorder and other conditions
  • Supporting special populations, including children and youth and communities with cultures different from your own, as a disaster responder
  • Substance use issues and conditions in survivors and responders
  • Issues responders may experience as a result of their work, including compassion fatigue and secondary traumatic stress, as well as self-care and stress management as a responder

Use the menu bar on the left to narrow the results by disaster type, behavioral health issue or condition, topics in prevention and recovery, and more.

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Addressing the needs of the seriously mentally ill in disaster - Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress (USUHS, CSTS)
This 2-page tip sheet describes how people with serious mental illness may experience and respond to disasters. It identifies ways in which people with serious mental illness are more vulnerable than others in disasters and problems they may face. It also offers tips for helping people with serious mental illness and their families with disaster planning and in the aftermath of a disaster.

A guide to managing stress in crisis response professions - U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (HHS, SAMHSA)
This is a pocket guide that provides first responders with information on signs and symptoms of stress and offers simple, practical techniques for minimizing stress responses prior to and during disaster response.

Alcohol misuse: Screening and behavioral counseling interventions in primary care - U.S. Preventive Services Task Force
This webpage summarizes recommendations of the USPTF regarding screening people in primary care settings for alcohol misuse. In its "Related Information for Health Professionals" section, it includes links to PDF files describing several recommended screening tools for alcohol misuse and alcohol use disorder. Screening tools include the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test for Adolescents (AUDIT), CAGE, and the T-ACE, which is specifically for use with pregnant women.

American Psychological Association Disaster Resource Network - American Psychological Association (APA)
The APA Disaster Resource Network (DRN) consists of about 2,500 licensed psychologists in the United States and Canada with expertise in disaster behavioral health who volunteer in disaster preparedness, response, and recovery. Network members attend and support community preparedness meetings, support disaster survivors and response workers in building their resilience after a disaster, and track issues and achievements in response and recovery to make future efforts more effective. The webpage about the DRN includes information about becoming part of the DRN and how psychologists can help with disaster response.

Communicating in a crisis: Risk communication guidelines for public officials - U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (HHS, SAMHSA)
This is a pocket guide for public officials that provides the basic components of effective communication during a crisis. [HHS Publication No. SMA 02-3641]

Curbside Manner: Stress First Aid for the street - National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF)
This online course prepares first responders to use a set of principles and actions to meet the needs and promote the resilience of those they assist, including survivors of natural and human-caused disasters. The course includes video, a quiz, and a student manual. [Authors: Gist, R., Watson, P., Taylor, V., & Elvander, E.]

Detecting alcoholism: The CAGE questionnaire - Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA)
The CAGE questionnaire is an easy-to-remember screening tool for detecting alcoholism. Public safety workers can use this tool to determine if someone they assist in the field is in need of treatment. [Citation: Ewing, J. JAMA. 1984; 232(14): 1905–1907.]

Disaster rescue and response workers - U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, National Center for PTSD (VA, PTSD)
This online article explains the different stressors that affect disaster response workers and provides tips on how to cope with stress during and after a disaster, and upon returning home from a disaster. [Authors: Young, B. H., Ford, J. D., & Watson, P. J.]

Disasters and substance abuse or dependence - U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, National Center for PTSD (VA, PTSD)
This webpage presents research findings on substance use or dependence following a disaster. The page shows rates of use of various substances after disasters and highlights research findings primarily related to post-disaster use and misuse of alcohol.

Disaster training - American Red Cross
This part of the American Red Cross (ARC) website describes ways for people to volunteer with ARC before, during, and after disasters to improve community physical and behavioral health outcomes. For those interested in serving as disaster volunteers with ARC, free online training modules are provided, including Disaster Mental Health: Introduction and Disaster Health and Sheltering for Nursing Students.

Early mental health intervention for disasters - U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, National Center for PTSD (VA, PTSD)
This online fact sheet contains information on initial mental health interventions that are in line with the basic principles of emergency care. The fact sheet also provides an overview of Psychological First Aid.

Emergency management on EHS Today - EHS Today
This part of the website EHS Today is an information resource for public and private leaders involved in the coordinated effort needed to enhance security, ensure domestic preparedness, and respond to emergencies. It includes news, events, and a corresponding e-newsletter.

Emergency responders: Tips for taking care of yourself - U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (HHS, CDC)
This webpage provides information for responders to disasters and other emergencies about the importance of stress prevention and management in their work and offers tips for building resilience and managing stress before, during, and after a response. Contact information for SAMHSA's Disaster Distress Helpline is also provided (its web address, https://www.samhsa.gov/find-help/disaster-distress-helpline; toll-free phone number, 1-800-985-5990; TTY, 1-800-846-8517; and how to reach the helpline via SMS—text TalkWithUs to 66746), as well as links to several SAMHSA resources.

Everyone goes home - 16 firefighter life safety initiatives: 13 psychological support - National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF)
A national program of the NFFF, the 16 Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives encompass management, research, and communication efforts in several areas to increase safety and well-being for firefighters and emergency medical services (EMS) personnel. Initiative 13 focuses on psychological support. The webpage dedicated to this initiative includes information about the psychological challenges involved in firefighting and EMS work, as well as links to posters, a model and assessment tool, a guide, and reports to help fire departments and EMS providers to support the psychological safety and health of their personnel.

First responders - U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Science and Technology Directorate (DHS, S&T)
This DHS webpage for first responders describes the First Responders Group, which focuses on building the capacity of responder agencies across the country to learn from one another and access and deploy technologies to expedite and improve their work. The webpage includes links to publications, first responder communities of practice, events, and funding and training resources.

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Last Updated: 07/19/2017