The Mountain Emergency Services Committee monthly meeting last Thursday featured Jim Cook, Cal Fire retired battalion chief and current president and chief chaplain of the California Fire Chaplain Association. His topic was “Disaster Psychology.”
Although Cook’s talk was framed as training for Community Emergency Response Team volunteers, there were topics and discussion points that could be useful for mountain community residents.
In a tight-knit area such as Idyllwild, the effect of assisting neighbors after a disaster can leave individuals troubled and feeling unsafe and insecure. In the stress of the moment while assisting others, personal feelings can be held back and surface later causing trauma, said Cook. Symptoms of post-disaster trauma can include irritability, self-blame (I survived, others didn’t), a feeling of needing to isolate oneself, feeling helpless, mood swings, depression, concentration and memory problems, and relationship problems. Cook advised discussing how one felt during and after the disaster and then discussing the feelings that surfaced later. “People need to talk,” said Cook, “but emergency responders have no time to offer counsel.”
Cook also advised the best assistance one can provide to someone exhibiting post-disaster trauma symptoms is to listen. “Spend time with them, listen, be there,” he counseled.
Cook described how memories of difficult disaster incidents can survive for years after the occurrences. “I’ve been retired six years and I still see things that happened 20 years ago,” he said. “When you have a major disruptive event in your life, it changes things. The question is, do you acknowledge what happened or do you repress it?”
For professional responders, CERT volunteers or neighbors helping neighbors, the advice is the same, said Cook. “Knowing the possible symptoms of disaster trauma, and watching for those symptoms in those around you, can help you to manage the impact on those people,” he observed. “The losses to them are strong. Just be there to listen. You don’t need to speak.” He counseled that the first instinct is to do something to fix or alleviate the suffering but that listening provides the most healing.
As to critical incident stress management after a disaster, the most important things a person can do to be valuable to others is “to contact the people you love, eat right, avoid drugs and alcohol, sleep and talk to someone about your own feelings — receive as well as give,” Cook said.