AMU Emergency Management Opinion Public Safety

Too Many Disasters-Responder Fatigue

2020 has been a busy year for disasters and looks to continue. However, how much can responders take. We started off with the COVID-19 Pandemic. Next, and still on going are the civil disturbances around the country. Last week, the Hurricane prediction center announced that the United States would have a more severe hurricane season. Lastly, the CDC and other medical professionals are predicting a resurgence of COVID-19 in the fall. While we have seen the memes of an alien invasion coming sometime in between all of these events, the funny meme is indicative of the fatigue that responders are seeing and experiencing

What Affects have Each Disaster Imposed on the Responders

The COVID-19 was a disaster that most responders had not experienced prior. While there have been pandemics throughout history, those with such severe changes and predictions have not occurred during the career of the majority of responders. The fear of the unknown, coupled with so many PPE and practices in our organization placed a high stress level on our personnel. This was coupled with the fear that they could bring this virus home to their family unknowingly and affect not only themselves, but also their families. Information related to the disease changed almost daily and so frequently, that much fatigue was seen in personnel from trying to keep up. Planners in the organization dedicated nearly their entire time to the efforts and stressed about making the right plans to keep their personnel safe.

In addition to the stress recognized at work, the stay at home rules put in place prevented any release of stress. Gyms closed, outdoor recreation closed and the only activity was to order take out and watch a show about tigers and their lives in captivity. No real relase mechanism. Liquor stores reported exponential sales, which means that stress relief was through alcohol consumption.

Towards the end of the pandemic, local governments throughout the country announced that due to the economic losses from the pandemic, they would need to layoff police and fire. After all of the sacrifices and changes were being rewarded with layoffs. Now were have an economic stress to the same people that we stressed with infecting their families with COVID-19

After many of us saw the pandemic wind down and public functions begin to re-open, we were inundated with Civil Disturbances. No matter your thoughts on the cause and whether it is justified or not, public safety workers were thrust to the front line. The people that just weeks ago were holding the public safety workers in high regards were now throwing bricks at their vehicles, blocking their response, and shooting them. Now we moved from an invisible fear, only to find a very visible fear. Not too many people like to go to work knowing they will be assaulted and/or shot at. Firefighters knew they must don ballistic protection and attempt some fire control tactics. Fortunately, or unfortunately, many of our urban firefighters have plans in place for civil disturbance operations. However, this round, the protesters and looters made a point to perform their actions in many of the suburban areas that may not have experience, nor the PPE to protect them from the violence. Again, we subjected our responders to activities that required a high degree of vigilance

The next large-scale disaster will be an increased hurricane season. While this appears to only affect a few departments in specific states, this is not true as State EMAC and Federal Response resources have to be derived from other local government responders. Thus, Florida often pulls personnel from Ohio to meet the needs of the hurricane response, as no government could staff daily to meet the expectations of the response to a hurricane’s aftermath. This will pull responders from their families that were already at a high level of stress due to the 2 previous disasters and add to the stress. Additionally, many of the responders that are EMAC or federal response resources are compensated through a reimbursement process that requires the municipality sending the help to outlay the overtime and backfill now and await the reimbursement for the state or federal government. In case you haven’t forgotten, we do not have monies to pay their current staff to protect their city; how will they find the money to pay to help other cities. This could result in much delay responding fully to the hurricanes, which will further stress the responders in the areas of the hurricanes.

So, if you wonder why the first responders may not be their jovial selves, ask yourself if you could put up with this much long-term and multi-faceted stress. Take care of each other and be sure take care of yourselves and seek help if needed. No one is above this type and duration of stress.

Dr. Randall Hanifen serves as a shift commander at a medium-sized suburban fire department in the northern part of the Cincinnati area. Randall is the CEO/principal consultant of an emergency services consulting firm, providing analysis and solutions related to organizational structuring of fire and EMS organizations. He is the chairperson and operations manager for a county technical rescue team. From a state and national perspective, he serves as a taskforce leader for one of FEMA's urban search and rescue teams, which responds to presidential declared disasters. From an academic standpoint, Randall has a bachelor’s degree in fire administration, a master’s degree in executive fire service leadership, and a doctoral degree in business administration with a specialization in homeland security. He is the associate author of “Disaster Planning and Control” (Penwell, 2009), which provides first responders with guidance through all types of disasters.

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