Society at large rarely gives family members of responders enough credit and appreciation for the sacrifices they must make. Family members accept a different schedule than most others, often giving up time with family and friends on holidays, birthdays, and other important gatherings. Families must also endure the burden of worrying about the responder, as well as the task of supporting the responder during and after difficult tours of duty. Adding to the challenges faced by families of responder, military families must also handle long separations for multiple duty tours, as well as the stress that comes with war zone assignment.
In the aftermath of a critical incident or disaster, family members play an important role in supporting the coping and recovery of the responder. However, families are often not provided with the proper guidance, training or support for this role. In our work with family members of public safety workers, the 7-Dippity team has learned some important lessons about how families can take care of themselves, so that they may remain available to help and support their loved ones who are responders.
Some Tips For Family Members of Public Safety Workers
- Families need to understand the work place culture and types of assignments in which their loved ones participate. If the family is knowledgeable about these work components, they can communicate better with the responder about everyday and any critical incident stressors he or she may experience. If families and responders have a habit of talking about the "job" before a disaster occurs, then the home environment will be a natural place of support in the aftermath of a catastrophic incident.
- Families need to have their own support network. This is critically important so that the family members have somewhere to turn in the event they become overwhelmed with stress. In many cases, immediate family members often receive support from their extended family, as well as friends. In addition, it can be helpful to know other families in your service so that you have someone with whom to network and obtain or share information during and after disasters. The family network should also include members of the service command staff who can be called upon for help, if needed. In many departments, there is a family liaison that can assist families with information and support. An EAP or service Chaplain can also be of help to families. The key is to know the available support network personnel before disaster strikes, so that the family is "plugged in" and supports are readily accessible when a disaster occurs.
- Family members should understand that they may greatly benefit from speaking to a counselor or other mental health professional themselves. Responders are not the only ones who may be in need of assistance during and after disaster. Family members of responders, including children, can become overwhelmed by the enormity of a disaster as well. When normal coping mechanisms cannot resolve short or long-term stressors, professional mental health providers can offer guidance to assist in recovery. Families involved in 9/11 have described various situations in which professional counseling was not only helpful, but vital in the trauma recovery process.
- Responders need to understand what families go through during routine tours of duty as well as extended responses to disasters. This way, the responder can help the family deal with worries, as well as help the family plan for potential extended absences. For example, in some families impacted by 9/11, the extended absence of the responder left the remaining parent pressed into functioning much like a single parent – with little to no help regarding carpools, sports teams, homework, etc. Other families experienced financial or legal difficulties because the responder had sole access to bankcards or critical legal documents needed to resolve problems. The more a family can anticipate and plan for the possibility of a long term absence, the more ready family members will be in the absence of their loved ones. Creating an Incident Pre-Plan for the family is the best way to prepare. Click here to learn more about developing an Incident Pre-Plan.
For more information on how family members can assist responders, please read "Our Challenges, Our Responses." This peer guide was developed by 7-Dippity for 9/11 responders to the Pentagon and their family members. Click on the cover below to learn more about the material and download a copy.
Our Challenges, Our Responses