Advice for Public Service Members Responding to Disasters & Emergencies

Find out how to stay safe when you are working in emergencies. Helping others is a primary concern, but it is also critical to care for yourself and fellow staff when you are called to respond.

As a public service worker, you may be called on to help with dealing with the aftermath of a severe emergency. In addition to police officers, firefighters and other emergency response personnel, virtually any other type of public service employee may be asked to help in the event of a natural disaster, such as a tornado, hurricane or flood, or a man-made one, like war or a regional power outage.

Working in public service as part of emergency or disaster response can be both rewarding and incredibly stressful. While making a real difference in people’s lives when they are experiencing disasters, responding can also put you at risk. The right protection and preparation can ensure your safety so that you may return home to your family.

If you are one of the first on the scene following a major disaster, there are numerous dangerous to which you could be exposed. Failure to take certain precautions could lead to serious illness, injury or even death. What follows are health and safety tips to keep safe during severe emergencies.

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Prepare Yourself

Before you head into the field, try to find out as much as possible about what your responsibilities will be once you arrive. Keep in mind that severe emergencies may require you to be on the job for an extended period of time. If you have to travel to respond, you may be unable to return home for several weeks. Find out as much information as possible and pass it along to your loved ones so they know what to expect.

Prepare yourself mentally and emotionally. You may see and have to deal with disturbing things, understanding this and planning how you’ll recover from them can help you face and manage tragedy that you encounter.

Equip Yourself

Ask if you need any specific gear – personal protective equipment. It’s better to ask ahead of time so that you can prepare than to arrive on the scene only to discover that you need something that you left at home.

This is especially true in extreme temperatures. For example, wearing appropriate cold weather gear or work wear will make a huge difference in what you will be able to accomplish in low temperatures.

First and foremost, never respond to a disaster wearing something like shorts and a t-shirt. Such attire provides absolutely no protection, and you never know what types of things you could be exposed to.

Instead, make sure most exposed skin is covered, especially if you will be working where you might be exposed to contaminated water or hidden debris.

If you are working in an area where falling debris could be a risk, wear a hard hat and steel-toed boots. You’ll also want to don safety gear like heavy duty gloves and a respirator.

Stay Out of Floodwaters Whenever Possible

Flooding commonly accompanies many different types of disasters, and it can be deadly. When it comes to entering potentially contaminated waters, going overboard on safety precautions is never a bad thing.

Avoid driving through floodwaters.

Try to stay out of floodwaters as much as possible while you are working. Here’ why:

  • They can contain harmful bacterias, viruses and other contaminants.
  • They can hide debris that can cause serious injuries.
  • They can cause electrocution if there are downed power lines in the water.

If you absolutely have to enter a flooded area, wear the appropriate gear. You’ll need:

  • Waterproof attire
  • Gloves
  • Safety goggles

Ensure that power has been disconnected if there is any risk that a power line has come in contact with the water.

Take Care of Your Mental Health

Burnout and secondary traumatic stress are very common among public service workers who respond to major emergencies. Burnout manifests as feelings of being overwhelmed and extreme exhaustion. It can also cause you to become depressed, irritable or easily frustrated.

If you are suffering from burnout, you may also feel isolated from others or feel like you are a failure.

Secondary traumatic stress occurs as a result of having to deal with traumatic situations impacting other people. It can cause many of the same symptoms as primary traumatic stress disorder, including excessive fear that something bad is going to happen, being easily startled or having recurrent nightmares or thoughts about the situations. You could also develop a sense that someone else’s trauma is your own.

Secondary traumatic stress can include physical signs of stress, such as a racing heart or sweaty palms.

As an emergency responder, it is important to take care of your mental health to avoid these problems.

  • Limit yourself to working no longer than 12 hours per shift.
  • Seek to work in teams instead of working alone.
  • Recognize when you need to take breaks, and understand that doing so is not selfish.
  • Talk to your supervisors, teammates, friends and family members about your feelings.
  • Seek professional help if you find you are struggling with what you experienced during emergency response service.

Remember that your needs are just as important as the needs of the survivors that you have been sent to help. Grant yourself grace when you are having a difficult time.

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