When runners compete in their first marathon or triathlon, they often set goals such as, “I hope to break four hours,” or “I want to beat my brother’s time.” However, a different mindset should be taken for a first attempt at an endurance event. Rather than placing benchmarks or targets, the goal should be to simply finish the first event. This same advice applies to a first-time disaster deployment.
When deploying to the first disaster in a career, it is critical for a responder to focus on just getting through it and reaching the “finish line.” During disasters, mistakes are inevitably made and not everything goes as planned, but the goal is to just keep going. The following eight tips acquired from training for high-endurance activities are also helpful for responders who are getting ready for their first disaster deployment.
Do Not Ignore the Impacts
During a crisis, responders may be upset with what they see and experience. It is tempting to put on a strong façade, say that it has all been seen before, or joke about it as a course of action to deal with the images that cannot be forgotten. Yet, each new tragedy is another opportunity to trigger something inside. It can happen to even the strongest and most seasoned responder. A psychological first aid course can help one understand the signs and symptoms of job and disaster-related stress, and recognize personal needs as well as those of colleagues. Talking to someone and encouraging colleagues to do the same can help responders cope with emotions triggered by the incident response. Help lines are another option. For example, the Disaster Distress Helpline is a toll free, multilingual, and confidential service that can be reached by calling (800) 985-5990 or texting TalkWithUs to 66746. It is important to remember that disaster experiences can and will stay with the responders for a long time. They may not go away when the deployment is over.
Maintain Sleep, Nutrition & Self-Care
Disasters can be exhausting, and this may lead to responders not eating properly or taking care of themselves. Few deployments are managed in the normal Monday-Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. work schedule. Many are managed in operational periods lasting 8-12 hours, and most run 24 hours per day. Responders typically work very hard during a deployment, with long hours for days without a break. As such, they should plan to eat whatever food is available and accept that any normal diet routine will be interrupted. Convenience or mass-produced/shelf-stable food is to be expected, with snacking overtaking regular meals often the norm during a deployment. Interruption or cessation of a normal exercise routine should also be expected. Finally, bad habits such as smoking or alcohol use as a way of dealing with stress may increase. Responders must prepare for these changes and do their best to take care of themselves. Staying hydrated, taking advantage of sleep opportunities, and eating an abundance of healthy food when it is available should all be priorities. The saying, “I picked a bad day to start a new diet,” can certainly be said about most deployments.
Set Realistic Expectations
It is not possible to make everybody happy. Attempting to please everyone and gauging success based on others’ levels of satisfaction do not work on a disaster site. It is important to suspend this method of measurement during a deployment. It is not possible to perfectly balance the needs of victims, colleagues, families, partner organizations, superiors, and subordinates. At some point, someone inevitably feels slighted, with nothing to remedy the situation. This is just a complication of a disaster, so focus must remain on the execution of tasks to the best of a responder’s ability.
Stay Focused on the Purpose
Responders should never forget whom they are there to help. They do not deploy to take a break from their everyday jobs or their families, or to go on vacation. They are there because they answered the call to help survivors of the disaster. This is the guiding principle that should keep responders focused on acting in the best interest of those they are there to help and in dealing with the political, financial, and personality-based pressures they will encounter. One way for responders to navigate these pressures is to ask themselves “Is this [decision/action] in the best interest of those I am here to help?” The caveat to this line of thinking is to never compromise responder safety.
Accept the Inevitable
Responders make decisions based on best guesses that are not always right (in fact, they may often be wrong). Disasters by their very nature are chaotic, unpredictable, and riddled with unknowns (e.g., How many people lost their homes? How many are without heat or electricity? How many need shelter? How crowded have the emergency rooms become? Which way does the wind fan the fires? When will the river crest?). The questions are as endless as the possible answers. Expert advice and historical data can help answer these questions. However, it is also important to accept the inevitable. At some point during a deployment, responders are faced with having to make a decision without solid data. These guesses must come from the gut and require choosing one course of action over another. It may not be the right decision, but it is the best decision that can be made with what is known. Expect and accept that not all decisions are going to be the right ones.
Do Not Work in a Vacuum
No matter what a responder’s function is on a deployment, sharing information about what the responder and an organization are accomplishing is critical. Coordination, cooperation, and communication eliminate duplication of efforts and maximize output. This leads to an increase in the overall efficiency of effort. By understanding an organization’s role during a disaster, responders can better stay within their scope of practice and not overstep their roles and responsibilities. Working together and not against other organizations involves sharing information and intelligence and taking direction. A disaster is not the time for personal or organizational gain. Responders must be able to rise above politics, egos, and rivalries to do the greatest good for those in need.
During a deployment, responders lose touch with what is happening at home. It is easy to forget about everything outside of immediate tasks when on a deployment. Work continues to accumulate at the daily job site, the inbox and voice mail continue to fill, the grass continues to grow at home, and friends and loved ones continue to live their lives. Every day during down time, responders should step away from their tasks and reach out to friends and family. Taking a few minutes to catch up goes a long way to staying grounded and to making the return from the deployment less difficult.
Take Time to Readjust
Returning home and back to normal takes time. Assimilation to everyday life is not easy and cannot happen overnight. Responders are faced with an overflowing inbox of email, delayed tasks at work, and family obligations. There is an emotional transformation from being “in the moment” during the deployment back to the everyday tasks such as picking up a child from soccer practice on time. Everyday life might seem trivial. Responders may or may not want to talk about what they observed and accomplished, and people around them may or may not want them to share. Both views are okay, but finding someone to talk to is essential when a responder is adversely affected by the experience. Before heading back to work, take at least a day or two off to catch up on missed sleep, spend time with friends and loved ones, and reflect on and analyze the experience. Perhaps even write down notes to review before the next deployment, moments of success to replicate, and tasks that could have been done better. It can also be helpful to update contact lists with information about people encountered on the deployment, and to reconnect with them.
Disaster deployments are often mentally, physically, and psychologically draining. After action reports of deployment descriptions include words such as challenging, fulfilling, inspirational, gratifying, impossible, stressful, chaotic, confusing, and successful. Many responders can relate to these words and may have descriptions of their own after their first deployments. In addition to regular training, this list should better prepare responders for their first deployment experience.
Arthur (Art) Samaras
Arthur Samaras has worked and volunteered as a professional responder for over 20 years. In that time, he has focused on providing disaster services within the ESF 6 (Mass Care) and ESF 8 (Medical services) arenas for small volunteer agencies, hospitals, large nongovernmental organizations, and the U.S. government. He currently splits his time as a flight paramedic in New Jersey and as a paramedic in Cambridgeshire, England. To maintain a high level of mental, physical, and psychological health between deployments, he enjoys triathlons, sailing, rock and ice climbing, and most importantly traveling and spending time with his wife and three young children.