Texas Emergency Management ONLINE 2015 Vol. 62 No. 7

Resiliency During Long-Term Emergency Activations

On Saturday night, May 23, 2015, during the Memorial Day weekend, a severe storm hit Blanco and Hays counties in Central Texas. As daybreak came Sunday morning, the level of destruction that occurred along the Blanco River in the town of Wimberley became very apparent. The first responders on site, consisting of firefighters, EMTs, paramedics, pilots and law enforcement, made numerous water rescues with high-profile vehicles, boats and helicopters. Their specialized training prepared them to perform during that very challenging and stressful environment. Together they made a large impact on the community and saved many lives. This historic event will long be remembered for its devastation and the tragedy it left behind.

Hurrican outlook

Nighttime SOC Operations

At the time of Memorial Day weekend floods in Central Texas, the State Operations Center (SOC) had already been involved in a lengthy, 24/7 activation. Beginning in early May, recurring severe weather and flooding had affected almost all of the state, from Wichita Falls to Rio Grande City. The seemingly endless severe weather brought widespread flash flooding, high winds and tornadoes across the state. The event caused major damage in over a hundred counties, costing millions of dollars and sadly, loss of life. After 29 days of activation, the SOC was finally demobilized on June 5, only to be reactivated June 16 as Tropical Storm Bill approached the Texas coast.

When the SOC is activated, many people representing local, state, federal and nonprofit agencies are brought together to provide support and infrastructure during large-scale disaster response. With little press or notoriety, they provide support to the affected cities and counties anywhere in the state with ready and available assets. It becomes a significant physical and mental challenge for the staff, who are working 12 to 14 hour shifts for several days in a row, alongside coworkers as well as unfamiliar staff from other agencies, all of whom are working outside of the routine of their normal, day-to-day environment.

Hurrican outlook

Cleaning up after a flood

During local emergencies and disasters, communities across Texas activate their own response systems, from large, sophisticated emergency operating centers to small community-based response and recovery actions. Some responders, such and community relief and recovery staff may be working over large areas or may have to constantly travel to multiple sites over long periods of time. Coping with the long, abnormal hours, the uncertainty of an unfolding situation, the lack of control during and the sheer amount of people and work involved at an incident can have profound effects on a person’s physical and emotional well-being.

There are high expectations and challenges associated with an activation that can cause mental stress, depression and physical fatigue.

  • Continuing and changing forms of stress can cause a lack of concentration, memory loss and errors in judgment.
  • Extended periods under stress, such as when workers experience high demands and low levels of control over their work, may cause depression.
  • Extended periods of highly demanding and stressful situations coupled with long work hours can cause abnormal physical fatigue or work exhaustion.

Everyday life is full of physical, psychological and emotional stress. However, some of the common challenges faced by staff during a long activation or deployment can lead to abnormal feelings from the stress, such as:

  • Anxiety
  • Grief
  • Uncertainty
  • Depression
  • Irritability
  • Agitation
  • Lack of emotion
  • Feeling overwhelmed

Healthy survival during a long deployment
Resiliency is the ability of an individual to bounce back from intense or unexpected adversity and to cope with that stress in healthy ways. The goal of public safety resiliency is to help participants manage their stress effectively by using practices established through research-based resiliency methods. This involves a platform to support their physical, psychological, emotional and social system needs.

During stressful times, it’s important to take care of yourself in order to take care of others. Much of the stress can be allayed if you are as prepared as possible prior to being activated. Have an activation plan in place long before there is the possibility that you will be activated. Do you have someone who can take care of your kids or others in your care? Look after your pets or livestock? Watch your house?  Remember that your reliance on your support people will cause stress in their normal lives as well. Do you have a plan to perform your daily tasks, such as filling prescriptions while you’re working abnormal hours?

Here are a few skills you can practice to have the resiliency for surviving a long activation or deployment:

  • Maintain proper nutrition. Although the burger joint across the street is open 24 hours, limit your intake of junk food. Select healthy meals and snacks, such as foods that contain natural sugars and protein.
  • Get your exercise. If you have an exercise regimen, try to stick with as much of it as possible. Take the time to get away from your computer screen and walk around, get fresh air and perform stretches.
  • Get your rest. Six to eight hours each day of uninterrupted sleep is best. If this is not possible, find a time and a quiet place for restorative naps.
  • Find other ways to relax. If you can, take a day or two off when possible and get away from work. Take time for a massage or read a book. If you’re normally active, try to participate in some of the activities you usually do during your normal off-work time.
  • Call on your social support with coworkers, family and friends during stressful times. It’s important to recognize when you are reaching your limits and to be able to communicate your feelings to any of these people. On the job, keep an eye on each other and recognize behavioral changes that show signs of poor stress management.
  • Avoid alcohol and drugs. Your body is already trying to cope with long hours, adjusted schedules, and other stress.
  • Avoid making significant or life-changing decisions, such as moving or making large purchases until after you’re back to your normal routine.

There are people who are attracted to the front line work of emergency response. These individuals often have innate characteristics that allow them to work and even thrive in stressful environments. Beyond that, they also are often taught how to further develop and practice various positive coping skills. These skills help them to readily bounce back and recover from the traumatic aftermath of extreme events (Resilience & Recovery). Many of the professionals who get pulled into an extended duty in an emergency operations or community recovery center, may not have same front line experience or exposure to disaster response as trained responder, but the behind-the-scenes work during an extended activation can have similar physical, psychological and emotional effects as the challenges and stress of being in the field.

It’s very important to realize that the professionals involved in a behind-the-scenes activation or deployment to the front lines all work to save lives, restore communities and serve the citizens of the state of Texas. All are vital for the success of the incident response and management and all may suffer similar consequences from the challenges and stress involved. It is important to acknowledge, recognize and manage the physical, psychological and emotional effects of those challenges and stress. This can be the key to a successful engagement during and recovery from an activation or deployment.

MacMillan Dictionary
EMS Industry Lacks Resilience
FEMA Speaks Out on Preparedness, Resilience

Tips for Managing and Preventing Stress:
A Guide for Emergency and Disaster Response Workers

Normal Reactions to a Disaster Event

  • No one who responds to a mass casualty event is untouched by it
  • Profound sadness, grief, and anger are normal reactions to an abnormal event
  • You may not want to leave the scene until the work is finished
  • You will likely try to override stress and fatigue with dedication and commitment
  • You may deny the need for rest and recovery time

Signs That You May Need Stress Management Assistance

  • Difficulty communicating thoughts
  • Difficulty remembering instructions
  • Difficulty maintaining balance
  • Uncharacteristically argumentative
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Limited attention span
  • Unnecessary risk-taking
  • Tremors / headaches / nausea
  • Tunnel vision / muffled hearing
  • Colds or flu-like symptoms.
  • Disorientation or confusion
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Loss of objectivity
  • Easily frustrated
  • Unable to engage in problem-solving
  • Inability to relax when off duty
  • Refusal to follow orders
  • Refusal to leave the scene
  • Increased use of drugs / alcohol
  • Unusual clumsiness

Ways to Help Manage Your Stress

  • Limit on-duty work hours to no more than 12 hours per day
  • Make work rotations from high stress to lower stress functions
  • Make work rotations from the scene to routine assignments, as practicable
  • Use counseling assistance programs available through your agency
  • Drink plenty of water and eat healthy snacks like fresh fruit and whole grain breads and other energy foods at the scene
  • Take frequent, brief breaks from the scene as practicable.
  • Talk about your emotions to process what you have seen and done
  • Stay in touch with your family and friends
  • Participate in memorials, rituals, and use of symbols as a way to express feelings
  • Pair up with a responder so that you may monitor one another's stress

revised 04/07
Please note that this online publication has been abridged from the printed version.

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