On the front lines of disaster

Conference to focus on stress experienced by emergency workers

April 21, 2001|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

Name a crisis, and somebody at the Wyndham Hotel in the Inner Harbor this weekend has witnessed it firsthand.

Columbine. TWA Flight 800. Hurricane Hugo.

These and other disasters are the focus of a conference at the hotel, which aims to train paramedics, police officers and others who help people when tragedy strikes. The event, being held through tomorrow, is sponsored by a small Ellicott City nonprofit group, the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation, dedicated to serving people in the helping professions who often experience psychological trauma after a disaster.

Located in an office building near the Enchanted Forest Shopping Center and the Double T Diner on Route 40, the foundation has played a role in many major disasters over the past 12 years.

Jeffrey T. Mitchell, a psychologist who lives in Lisbon, a rural town in western Howard County, came up with the idea for the foundation. For nearly 10 years, he had worked as a volunteer firefighter and paramedic in the Baltimore area. Although he wanted to talk about his experiences, he didn't know whom to talk to. He said his family would have been traumatized to hear about the blood and gore he saw on the job.

Mitchell went on to train as a psychologist and teamed up with George S. Everly, a psychologist from Severna Park who specialized in the effect of trauma on the brain. They came up with a procedure for dealing with disaster that involved teams of firefighters, police officers and paramedics paired with one or more mental health professionals.

In 1989 they formed the Critical Incident Stress Foundation with their own money. The foundation is self-supporting and receives no government funding.

Before the foundation was established, Everly says, crisis management was largely a grass-roots activity consisting of walk-in clinics or telephone hot lines, and nobody reached out to the police officers, firefighters and paramedics who devoted their lives to helping victims.

Mitchell says people in these professions often suffer from burnout and post-traumatic stress symptoms, such as fatigue, nausea, dizziness and chest pains. They also frequent bars after work or abuse their spouses, he said.

Mitchell and Everly's system seeks to eliminate those reactions to stress and has been proven to reduce early retirement, sick time and disability claims among emergency care workers, Mitchell says.

In the 12 years since the foundation was founded, its membership has swelled to about 4,700 people. Every year, it receives hundreds of thousands of e-mails and phone calls from places such as Ireland, South Africa, Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Nepal, he said.

"The demand is unbelievable," Mitchell says. "It's astronomical."

Those attending the conference this week include military personnel, crisis workers, airline workers and victim's advocates. They are sharing their experiences about disasters such as the Texas A&M bonfire collapse, the Columbine school shooting, the Austrian ski tunnel tragedy that killed 155 people, the crash of Alaska Airlines Flight 261 and Hurricane Floyd. And they are attending sessions on suicide prevention, spiritual counseling and paramedic work overload.

This morning, Jeffrey M. Lating, a clinical psychologist from Loyola College, will talk about lessons learned when Joseph C. Palczynski went on a two-week killing rampage in March 2000 and held hostages in Dundalk. In the aftermath of that crisis, Lating - trained by the Critical Incident Stress Foundation - helped residents recover from the stress of having a killer disrupt their neighborhood.

Kathy H. Thomas of Stillwater, Okla., came to the conference this week to give a presentation on "friendly fire" accidents. Thomas, a psychologist who specializes in disaster situations, volunteered to help out when she heard about the Oklahoma City bombing six years ago. She spent eight days on a "death notification team," informing families that their loved ones had died in the bombing.

The experience changed Thomas' life. After the bombing, she trained with the Critical Incident Stress Foundation and changed her focus to counseling people in the wake of disaster. Her work now takes her around the country.

"One of the biggest things I learned is that law enforcement officials and firefighters and EMS personnel are humans, too," she says. "As much training as they have, nobody's prepared to pull dead kids out of a building."

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