Here is your Wednesday Wisdom series from the Family Assistance Foundation,
reminding you that a fully-integrated approach for assisting survivors of traumatic
loss involves a balance of head and heart. Wednesday Wisdom is written and
copyrighted by Carolyn V. Coarsey, Ph.D., and distributed by the Family
Assistance Education & Research Foundation Inc., www.fafonline.org.
Reprint is available with written permission from the Foundation. If the formatting of
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Exercising the Human Side of your Station and
Port Response Plan
“The emergency responders saved my life. The Care Team saved my Spirit.”
– Passenger survivor of an airline crash, where several passengers and one
crew member died
As the field of humanitarian assistance in transportation accidents has evolved,
many companies are making great progress. What is of particular interest now is
that airports, seaports and rail stations are joining the movement. We are being
asked to observe airport exercises more than ever in the history of the Foundation’s
work. Observing exercises is both heartening and encouraging, as it is clear that
those planning the exercises are embracing emotional survival of all involved—in
addition to life safety. At the Foundation, we see this as the next crucial step in the
advancement of Human Services Response™ in transportation tragedies.
Over thirty years ago when airlines, followed by passenger rail companies
and later cruise lines, began to assign trained employees to assist family
members, passengers and crew survivors of crises in their respective
workplaces, many people were surprised at the effectiveness of these models.
Yet, the success of these programs continues. Interviews with survivors continually
reveal that when well-trained, compassionate employees are allowed to assist
them during the acute phase of the crisis, bonds are formed that are healing to both
groups, i.e., the survivors and the employee responders.
“The employees were my family.”
– Guest survivor of a cruise line excursion accident where a total of twelve were killed
Statements such as these quotes are easy to understand with just a small amount
of education about psychological regression which occurs when anyone is
confronted with a traumatic situation. Neuroscientists tell us that when trauma
threatens us, we regress to the psychological level of a very young child.
In that psychological state as survivors, we are helpless and dependent on those
Care and Special Assistance Team Members are empowered to assist with the
victim's most basic needs, as well as emotional and social support. The gratitude
toward those who are there to help them is expressed in the comments like the
ones quoted in this article. But as survivors are quick to point out, these teams are
not at the airport.
“The Care Teams do a great job with survivors, but the problem is, they are not
at the airports.”
– Aviation Plaintiff’s Attorney
Those in leadership positions at stations and ports are now working hard to
bridge that gap. They recognize their unique opportunity to prepare their response
teams for offering swift compassionate care, like that which led to the survivors'
statements quoted above. To have the best result, we recommend that role-plays for
all exercises be carefully scripted to include a wide range of emotions and
challenges faced by survivors and responders.
Unfortunately, there is a misunderstanding about immediate emotional reactions on
the part of survivors. As a result, the dominant emotion that we observe acted out in
most exercises is that of anger and in some cases, downright rage. The problem
with anger being the only emotion displayed in an exercise is that this limits the
practice/experience that team members gain. As in any challenging customer
service scenario, when anyone is frustrated and angry, responders must listen,
validate and advocate for the person in distress. Front-line employees see anger
on a regular basis, but seldom, and maybe never in their careers will employees
experience the raw emotions expressed by family members who learn that their
loved one is involved and possibly dead, from a fatal event.
Interviews with team members who have worked with families waiting for news
about their loved ones in the Friends and Relatives Reception Center repeatedly
show other emotions that present greater challenges than dealing with anger.
In the Colgan Air/Continental Airlines accident, where all forty-nine on board were
killed, in addition to one man on the ground, family members were described as
being filled with despair and disbelief, helpless, hopeless, anxious and desperate
for information. There were no reports of outbursts of anger, just an overwhelming
need for confirmation of who was on board. The televisions scattered about the
terminal spoke volumes about the fate of those on board.
The sequel article to this one will provide examples of emotions, in addition to
anger that poses challenges for team members during a crisis that can be used
in role-plays. Additional information about trauma and the neurochemistry of
survival for passengers and survivors will also be provided. Much has been
learned about the "why" behind the way people react under maximum stress.
This information can be used to improve exercises by allowing responders
to practice more varied and in many cases, more useful role-plays.
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