Put the Oxygen Mask on Yourself First: First Responders and Critical Employee Emergency Planning (CEEP)

oxegyn maskOn November 18, 2010, the Gulf States Regional Center for Public Safety Innovations (GSRCPI) delivered training on Critical Employee Emergency Preparedness (CEEP) 1 at the Montgomery County (Pennsylvania) Public Safety Training Center. In attendance were a wide array of police, fire, EMS, public health and local government officials, and volunteers. They were there to learn why it is important for critical employees to prepare themselves and their families for an emergency as well as how to prepare.

Failure to plan hurts everyone. As First Responders we are trained to handle the emergency at hand, often at the cost of long-term planning.” 2 The GSRCPI trainers referred to Hurricane Katrina, in which more than 200 New Orleans police officers abandoned their posts during the storm. 3

Interviews of these officers revealed that the primary reason given for leaving their posts was concern for their families. They did not know when their families would evacuate, where their families would go, and when or where they would be reunited. Officers with children or ill or disabled family members were especially concerned about making arrangements for safety.

The training emphasized that having employees abandon their posts threatens not only the effectiveness of their agency, but the safety and security of the entire community in which they serve. If the care and safety of first responders’ families is not addressed before an emergency, chances are, those first responders will not perform at their best during the emergency—or worse yet, won’t perform at all.

Get yourself ready.  The trainers used the example of Hurricane Katrina to explain why agencies need to ensure their employees have emergency preparation plans in place for their families and how they can do so. For instance, agencies can require employees to complete a written Personal Emergency Plan Form. The form would help the employee’s family be prepared to assume responsibility for their own care in the event that the employee, particularly if he or she is the primary caregiver, must report for duty during a disaster. This form would include household member contact information, their evacuation plan, as well as contact information that would allow them to be reached at the shelter location. The form would be maintained within the employee’s family and agency. Agencies should also have policies in place covering the issue of employees reporting for duty when there are special circumstances involved, such as ill family members or dual responder families. 4

Agencies may also wish to develop partnerships with a Sister City. The Sister City could provide shelter and support for employees’ families, serve as a host and check-in location for them, and be capable of providing point of contact information for them. It could also help agencies by providing communication resources and backups of information systems that could be destroyed during a disaster.   At the personal level, preparation would include family preparedness planning (including arrangements for pets) should the family need to shelter-in-place during a sudden weather change (e.g., tornado, hurricane) or chemical or radiological release (e.g., airborne contaminants). Trainers described the importance of preparing a Go-Kit of basic survival supplies, critical documents, and irreplaceable items, planning where to reside within the shelter-in location and how to secure the environment within that location. If evacuation is necessary, planning would include family instructions on when to leave, where to go and how to get there, where to meet, when to return, potential means of communication between the family and first responder, and what to include in a Grab and Go-Kit (smaller versions of Go-Kits for car and office).

Community policing can save lives in a disaster. The GSRCPI was created by the COPS Office in 1997 and the community policing philosophy remains an integral part of their training paradigm. For example, the GSRCPI trainers described the scenario of New Orleans officials trying to get residents to evacuate their homes as Hurricane Katrina was approaching—unfortunately, urgent media announcements were not enough to convince reluctant residents to evacuate.

They then described the actions of Larry Ingargiola, former Director of St. Bernard Parish Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, who had gone door to door to residents explaining the need to evacuate.5 Today, Larry is credited with saving hundreds of lives due to his efforts. What was the secret to his success? 6 Why did these residents listen to one government official, while resisting the urgent call to action by other well-meaning individuals and organizations?

Over the years, Larry had become known to members of his community. Between 1967 and 1995, he had served as the Crime Prevention Director and led its Neighborhood Watch program within the St. Bernard Parish Sheriff’s Office. It was this preexisting relationship with members of the community that gave him the ability to move the boulder that is human resistance to change. What would have happened to those citizens if this relationship had not existed; if this official was not known to them? How many residents would have heeded his suggestion to evacuate? Would they have opened the door to someone they did not recognize or trust (would you?)?

Plan to manage stress. Managing the emotional response of first responders will be crucial to public safety agencies surviving the ‘new normal’ that follows in areas hit by a disaster. CEEP should include training employees and their families in advance on what to expect after a disaster occurs, and create awareness for available resources for coping. Creating multi-disciplinary Critical Incident Stress Debriefing Teams can ensure staff is already in place to address the physical and psychological impact of the disaster. Agencies should also be trained to identify signs of stress, provide outlets for emotional expression, understand the first responder culture of control (which can impede willingness to seek help), and create avenues for ongoing treatment, such as counseling. These steps should be planned ahead of time, including having a cadre of peer counselors who have been through specialized critical incident stress training. GSRCPI is also careful to point out that:

“After a large scale disaster, you can expect people who claim to be professional mental health counselors to respond in large numbers.”7

Therefore, agency staff should be assigned to screen and verify credentials of mental health counselors appearing on-scene, with preference given to counselors with experience delivering services to first responders.

Plan now for the inevitable. It is when, not if, another disaster strikes that characterized the urgency in which the GSRCPI instructors led their training. This awareness course allowed this group of trainees—who spend their working lives responding to the needs of others—to spend some time learning the importance of putting the oxygen mask on themselves first to enhance their effectiveness within their community during a disaster. For more information on CEEP and the GSRCPI, visit http://www.gsrcpi.org, call CEEP Program Coordinator Jeff Wesley toll free at 1.888.283.0966 or email Jeff at jwesley@gsrcpi.org.

-Debra Cohen, Ph.D.
Senior Social Science Analyst
The COPS Office


1 - Funded by U.S. Department of Homeland Security/FEMA under Cooperative Agreement #2006-GT-TG-K007.

2 - Critical Employee Emergency Planning (CEEP) Participant Guide, Gulf States Regional Center for Public Safety Innovations (DHS FEMA), October 2009, p. 81

3 - Johnson, Kevin, Katrina made police choose between duty and loved ones,” USA Today. February 21, 2006. http://www.usatoday.com/educate/college/firstyear/articles/20060226.htm

4 - See also, http://www.ready.gov.

5 - This information was gathered by GSRCPI staff during research interviews conducted with St. Bernard Parish first responders during the development of the CEEP course.

6 - St. Bernard Parish was able to successfully evacuate 92 percent of its population of approximately 66,000. (S. Rpt. 109–322 - Hurricane Katrina: A Nation Still Unprepared, Special Report of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, 2006: 295) http://www.gpoaccess.gov/serialset/creports/katrinanation.html

7 - Critical Employee Emergency Planning (CEEP) Participant Guide, Gulf States Regional Center for Public Safety Innovations (DHS FEMA), October 2009, p. 77

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