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Advice For Disaster Responders

Advice For Disaster Responders

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Advice For Disaster Responders

Advice For Disaster Responders

Whether it's a tsunami in the Indian Ocean or an earthquake in Haiti, the U.S. Navy is often one of the first responders on the scene to help victims. This humanitarian aid is a proud tradition and one in which countries around the world rely. It also is a critical component of the Global War on Terrorism.

An effective leader prepares Sailors for the role they will play in providing disaster relief as much as he or she prepares them for combat or high-tempo operations. In a humanitarian effort, time—not terrorists—is the enemy.

The overwhelming amount of victims' needs can lead to great psychological stress in disaster responders. Your Sailors are eager to help; it is your job to ensure they maintain psychological strength, as well as physical strength, to best fulfill their mission.

Remember the five core leadership functions necessary to build resilience and ensure good mental health on a day-to-day basis:

  1. Strengthen
  2. Mitigate
  3. Identify
  4. Treat
  5. Reintegrate

These also apply to the demands placed on Sailors during a humanitarian effort.


No one who responds to a mass-casualty event is untouched, and profound sadness, grief and anger are normal reactions to what is an abnormal event.

A sense of knowledge and control are important for resilience, so prepare your Sailors for what they will experience: widespread deaths (including many children), great suffering and devastation, mass disorganization, rotten smells, no sanitary conditions. This will help steel them and give them an opportunity to plan how they will cope with the catastrophe.

Stress the importance of self-care. Sailors must have adequate rest and nutrition to most effectively help victims. Exercise also is vital, even if it only means five minutes of stretches, squats or push-ups when time allows. Several minutes of deep-breathing exercises—slowly inhaling to the count of three and exhaling to the count of three—are an instant stress reliever.


It is typical for disaster-relief workers to feel frustrated because there is always more to do, and there is a tendency to want "to fix everything right now."

Effective leaders must remind Sailors of the long-term nature of the mission and remove unnecessary stress. As practical:

  • Limit on-duty work hours to no more than 12 hours per day, with frequent breaks.
  • Make work rotations from high stress to lower stress functions.
  • Make work rotations from the scene to routine assignments.
  • Encourage Sailors to stay in touch with family and friends, as feasible.
  • Institute a buddy system for Sailors to watch out for one another.
  • Allow Sailors to freely talk about what they have seen and felt.
  • Participate in memorials or other ceremonies that are held to honor the victims.


Leaders need to identify potential sources of stress Sailors are likely to face when working a disaster. Common stressors include:

  • Very long work hours
  • Hot environment
  • Overwhelming scenes of poverty, misery, destruction
  • Feelings of "not being able to do enough"
  • Demanding or abusive victims (Not all are grateful.)
  • Dying children
  • Triage issues when care demands exceed the resources available.

Treat and Reintegrate

Help Sailors put their relief efforts into perspective. Because of the overwhelming nature of the disaster, there is a natural tendency for individuals to believe they have not done "enough."

Encourage Sailors to acknowledge their own contributions. Each has performed important, meaningful work that has greatly helped some—and often many—victims.

Keep Sailors informed as new developments in relief efforts are reported. Hold regular after-action reviews, where Sailors can exchange information about their experiences. As with any mission, unit cohesion is critical.

For Sailors who have continued difficulty in coping with the stresses of the disaster, ensure they receive appropriate treatment. Often, just talking with a Chaplain or corpsman restores functionality.

Remove an impaired Sailor from direct humanitarian assistance, but keep him or her engaged in a useful related activity.

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