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  • Captain LaPonda J. Fitchpatrick (Ret.), SHRM-SCP

Are You and Your Employees Psychologically Prepared for the Next Emergency, Crisis, or Disaster?

Throughout my law enforcement career, I had a mantra: be prepared for anything! I would remind my officers, peers, and superiors that they must be prepared for any situation that may arise during the course of their day. To help them mentally prepare to take a course of action or respond to a traumatic incident, I would tell them to run scenarios in their heads on their way to work about what could happen and how they would address the situation; on the way home, they should think about themselves and their families.

Law enforcement and public safety personnel are usually familiar with unusual and traumatic events; it's what they are trained for. But, what about other non-public safety workers that may not be first responders but can be adversely impacted by a major event? The incident could happen in front of them, they may have to respond to it, and/or they are made aware of what occurred. How will they as non-first responders handle this psychologically, both short and long term, when it could be difficult to process for those that have been trained to respond? We saw this play out on the streets of Manhattan in 2009, when the United States Air Force decided to update file photographs of Air Force One flying over New York City, including the Statute of Liberty. The photoshoot caused wide spread panic among New Yorkers, including some public safety workers, who thought it was another 9/11-style terrorist attack. It caused people to evacuate buildings and run for their lives.

When I was asked to create a Crisis Management and Communications course for the executive management of an international airport, I included a section on psychological preparedness. In that section, we discussed how major disruptive incidents can have psychological effects beyond the first responders and that services might need to be provided organization-wide. This is especially true in those incidents that result in loss of life.

Understanding that an airport is an industrial environment and aviation itself is a lucrative target for terrorists and others that would want to do harm to seek attention to their cause and understanding the importance of preparing yourself mentally in advance of a situation is key to avoiding long-term emotional effects. When a major event occurs, the need for responders goes well beyond the first round of public safety personnel; the accountant in the office may be required to respond and provide assistance in some manner too.

In our Psychological Preparedness Course, we designed it to help employees at all levels in the organization understand the need for psychological resiliency. We discuss the processes of successfully adapting in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress. Centering on providing employees with tools and coping skills to bounce back from difficult experiences, we also include information on how to be aware of their own culture and that of others while understanding that other cultures may handle stress differently.

The course also concentrates on how to recognize the signs and symptoms of incident-related stress that may be mild, moderate, severe, or debilitating or may manifest itself well after the event has been secured, sometimes in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These symptoms may include:

  • Separating oneself psychologically from an unbearable situation

  • Not acknowledging the event

  • Pain, nausea, and difficulty breathing

  • Feeling physically and mentally drained

  • Having difficulty making decisions or staying focused on topics

  • Becoming easily frustrated on a more frequent basis

  • Arguing more with co-workers, family, and friends

  • Feeling tired, sad, numb, lonely or worried

  • Experiencing changes in appetite or sleep patterns

  • Turning to alcohol, drugs, or inappropriate behaviors

We discuss the sequence of stressful events that may follow from the exposure to traumatic events such as terrorist attacks, active shooters, natural disasters that result in a major loss of resources or life, exposure to stressors that require transitional adjustments due to major losses such as the loss of a loved one. These sequences create a series of related challenges to overcome which adds to the stressful situation that a person is coping with both on the job and at home.

When dealing with these types of trauma, we emphasize to the employees there are both benefits and limitations to connecting with others and giving and receiving social support. There may be times when peer or family support is just not enough and may actually hinder a person’s recovery from traumatic events because the employee is trying "to be strong." This may be the time when outside professional intervention is necessary. The most important theme of this class is to let employees know that reactions to traumatic events are normal and that it is normal to seek help when coping becomes difficult. Whether it is peer or family support, or professional intervention, employees will recover faster if they are prepared prior to the event occurring and don't try to process the situation alone.

This 4-hour short course can be easily adapted to any type of business. It can also be expanded to an 8-hour course to include Workplace Violence Prevention specifically directed towards supervisors and managers. For more information on this and other courses, please contact us via email at

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