Looking after the psychological and emotional well-being of first responders during and after disasters

January 25, 2016

The Simulation, Training, and Exercise Collaboratory (SIMTEC) provides online training to enhance the emotional well-being of responders and other emergency management personnel

In 2006, Dawson College students experienced a school shooting that resulted in two tragic deaths and 19 injuries. In the summer of 2013, residents of Alberta experienced rainfall so heavy that catastrophic flooding killed five people and displaced 100,000 throughout the region. Mass casualty incidents and disasters such as these may be rare in Canada, but the impacts can be devastating; not only for the affected populations but for first responders and decision-makers.

A large number and variety of responders are involved in responding to a disaster and they are supported by Emergency Operations Centres (EOC) personnel who provide them with strategic and tactical level support. EOCs are usually staffed by senior decision-makers from the first responder community with additional support from local emergency organizations such as social services and non-governmental organizations like the Canadian Red Cross. 

These individuals must deal with disaster, and loss of life and property while under enormous psychosocial pressure. The longer-term effects of these experiences can include psychosocial symptoms such as post-traumatic stress, depression, anxiety, and excessive drug or alcohol use. It is important that timely psychosocial support be made available to reduce the impacts of traumatic events and help those affected.

“It is vital to look after the psychological and emotional well-being of both the responders who are on the front-line of these incidents and those who are working behind the scenes in EOCs,” said Dr. Mark Williamson, Director General, Defence Research and Development Canada’s Centre for Security Science (DRDC CSS).


“Longer-term effects can include psychosocial symptoms such as post-traumatic stress, depression, anxiety, and excessive drug or alcohol use. It is important that psychosocial support, which aims to reduce the impacts of traumatic events and help those affected resume their lives, be made available in a timely manner.”

With initial funding from the DRDC CSS-led Chemical, Biological, Radiological-Nuclear and Explosives Research and Technology Initiative (CRTI) and continued support from the Canadian Safety and Security Program (CSSP), the Justice Institute of British Columbia (JIBC) developed an important project known as the Simulation, Training, and Exercise Collaboratory (SIMTEC) to help prepare those responding to emergencies to deal with psychosocial pressures.The project was conducted in partnership with Health Canada and in collaboration with Royal Roads University.

“The SIMTEC project was based on the consideration that most decision-makers rarely talk about psychosocial factors and how they would affect the EOC, front line personnel, and the community,” stated Rene Bernklau, Provincial Coordinator, Hazardous Substance Response, British Columbia Emergency Health Services. “Failure to consider the psychosocial impacts of responding to disasters can result in diminished capacity to make informed decisions and long-term psychological impacts.”

Part of the solution is ensuring that the emotional well-being of affected individuals is considered during the planning and execution of response activities. The goal of SIMTEC was to develop evidence-based, practical tools and guidelines to address these psychosocial needs. The project resulted in the development of a series of five exercises that simulate various disaster scenarios, as well as numerous resources such as training videos, a family physician’s guide for managing patients who have experienced a mass casualty event, educational pamphlets for victims and their loved ones, and more. These are available to emergency management professionals and the public on the SIMTEC website.

“Our objectives were to enhance our understanding of how decision-makers incorporate psychosocial considerations into disaster responses, and to provide them with evidence-based information so they can develop better protocols and guidelines when faced with these situations,” stated Laurie Pearce, SIMTEC Research Chair.

Any community in the world that has an emergency operations and management structure in place can download and run the following exercises, which last for three to four hours. All that is required to run the exercises is one or two computers and high-speed internet.

Exercise Winter Blues

Winter Blues is a functional tabletop exercise with a scenario that centres on various severe weather conditions. Prior to the exercise, EOC teams watch a short training video where they learn how to reduce psychosocial impacts in an EOC. This exercise is aimed at senior decision-makers at the tactical and strategic level.

Exercise Green Cloud

Directed at a different group of emergency workers, Exercise Green Cloud is another three-hour functional tabletop exercise and training video with participants ranging from EOC personnel to those at an Incident Command site, including fire and rescue services, law enforcement, paramedics, hazardous materials response teams, and hospital emergency staff. They learn how to deal with a simulated terrorism-based chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive event, and manage their stress reactions, reduce the stressors on front-line staff, and provide timely psychosocial support to impacted residents.

Exercise Outbreak Orange

This exercise revolves around the handling and management of the psychosocial impact on hospital and health care personnel dealing with those infected with a severe, transmissible illness, as well as their families, first responders, and the broader community. This exercise is aimed at community and health-based EOCs with participants dealing with various situations such as the need to move potentially infected individuals, the need to quarantine contacts, the implementation of crisis communications, and the need to appropriately resource and train staff.

Exercise Target Red

This immersive table-top exercise is based on an active shooter scenario impacting a fictional city with a population of 50,000. Supported by a pre-exercise training and awareness video, EOC personnel and other agencies such as Victim Services must rely on their own training, experience, and planning to decide the best course of action for a challenging and traumatic event.

Research identified a real need to provide psychosocial supports to casualties, witnesses and responders following a mass casualty event. Opportunities and strategies to provide this support, including the reunification of casualties and responders, were discussed at a follow-up workshop and are depicted in the graphic below.

Exercise Black Fault

In this exercise, participants must effectively respond to a catastrophic magnitude 8.5 earthquake, as well as continuing after-shocks and tsunami alerts. Players must make high-risk and high–consequence decisions within a short amount of time, and integrate psychosocial aspects of an effective response into their decisions.

These exercises provide training and insight into psychosocial support protocols, which help prevent negative impacts in the future. Research findings indicate that immediate and long-term emotional responses associated with disasters are greatly reduced when psychosocial and social support is provided early on, during, and after an incident.

“Through the SIMTEC research project, it is our hope EOC personnel will incorporate psychosocial supports in their day-to-day operations in order to enhance individual resiliency and encourage community recovery and adaptation following a disaster or other emergency,” added Pearce.

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