Emergency medical personnel, both civilian and military, play a crucial role in everyday emergencies as well as mass casualty disasters. The Emergency Medical Service has a proud tradition of saving lives through the rescue and resuscitation of victims. Much like combat medics, EMS personnel take many life-threatening situations and turn victims into survivors.

In many jurisdictions, EMS personnel are involved in a volume of calls that exceed other providers. Therefore, the potential for stress due to volume and intensity of the emergency activities can be high. When coupled with a large-scale disaster such as Hurricane Katrina or 9/11, however, normal stress levels can be greatly exacerbated.

Mass casualty disasters can also bring about a different set of stressors that EMS personnel may not normally face. For example, during 9/11 at the World Trade Center and Pentagon, there were very few rescues; very few "save" opportunities. Many EMS personnel at Ground Zero were tasked with collecting body parts instead of helping to save lives simply because there were very few survivors. Many EMS personnel found this difficult to cope with.

Coping with the challenges of everyday stress in the EMS world of life and death, dealing with disaster reactions, and preparing for future mass casualty incidents requires training and support. In order to deal with the stressors of emergency medical work, several lessons learned from 9/11 responders may be of assistance:

Some lessons learned from 9/11 EMS responders:

  1. Debrief with partners as soon as possible after critical calls. Don't wait for the cumulative stress to pile up and overwhelm you.
  2. Stay involved in hobbies and activities. Balancing one's high stress activities with relaxing activities can reduce the psychological and physical impact of stress.
  3. Spend time with friends and family outside of emergency services work. It may help to "take a break" from emergency services work by spending time or going on vacation with friends and family who are not involved in EMS.
  4. Understand that not having the opportunity to save lives in mass casualty incidents can be a stressor itself. EMS personnel are trained to make an impact by attempting to save lives. If there are no victims to work on, there can be a stress from the inaction and the inability to affect rescues and deliver services.

Additional lessons learned and helpful coping strategies for EMS personnel can be found in the following materials developed by 7-Dippity for 9/11 responders:

Click on a cover to download the material:

Reaching For Support

Reaching For Support

Our Challenges, Our Responses

Our Challenges, Our Responses