Meet APA staff: Disaster Response Network

Division Services Office Director Sarah Jordan spoke with Margie Bird, Disaster Response Network (DRN) director, about her work with the DRN
Sarah Jordan: Can you tell me a little about your background? 

Margie Bird
Margie Bird:
I’ve been coordinating APA’s Disaster Response Network (DRN) for 13 years. I was drawn to the program because of the opportunity to work with psychologists volunteering to help people impacted by disaster. I had enjoyed a previous work experience coordinating volunteers to mentor elementary school children in Richmond, Va. city schools when I was completing my master’s degree in counseling psychology. My initial work with the American Red Cross, APA’s partner in disaster response, began in my teens teaching children to swim.  

Jordan: What is the Disaster Response Network? 

Bird: The Disaster Response Network is a collegial group of licensed psychologists with interest and training in disaster mental health. The DRN shares knowledge and resources as well as supports disaster services organizations with planning, response and recovery activities. Most state, provincial and territorial psychological associations (SPTAs) have developed and maintain a DRN program led by a SPTA-appointed coordinator. The DRN Office and Advisory Committee work with these SPTA programs to facilitate the network. 

For more than 20 years, APA has partnered with our nation’s primary disaster response organization, the American Red Cross. Red Cross has the experience, infrastructure and capability to include psychologists in disaster services work. SPTA DRN programs work with Red Cross chapters and sometimes other organizations such as community emergency response teams, the Medical Reserve Corps, or local fire and rescue departments.  

DRN members offer assistance locally to survivors and workers following commonly occurring incidents, such as fires and storms. Infrequently, they may support large-scale relief operation following such tragedies as the 9/11 terrorist attacks and Superstorm Sandy. DRN members’ involvement, however, expands beyond response. Most volunteer psychologists engage in an array of other activities, including teaching disaster mental health courses, holding leadership positions within the DRN program and Red Cross, offering post-deployment support to returning relief workers through local chapters, speaking at professional conferences, designing research projects, fielding media inquiries about common reactions to disaster, participating in planning meetings and drills, building coalitions among community response groups, or offering community workshops on disaster recovery.  

DRN members also draft tip sheets for the public on managing disaster-related distress and building resilience. These resources are posted to APA’s Psychology Help Center and Your Mind, Your Body blog. APA helps to spread the word about these resources through social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter.  

Jordan: When was the DRN started and how has it grown over the years? 

Bird: APA’s DRN began in 1991, when APA signed a Statement of Understanding with the American Red Cross (ARC). APA agreed primarily to help Red Cross develop and implement a disaster preparedness program to address mental health needs of disaster survivors and Red Cross workers, advise the development of a training course, and develop a network of trained, licensed psychologists to be mobilized in times of disaster. Red Cross sought this arrangement because its workers were distressed from responding to back-to-back relief operations, and survivors seemed to need help coping with their losses. 

Over the past decade, disaster psychology and DRN program have grown. As noted earlier, the field has expanded to focus as much on preparedness and recovery as it does on response. There is a general understanding that people are resilient and over time can manage to recover from tragedy and build satisfying lives. Disaster mental health assistance follows a resilience model that offers support toward positive longer-term recovery. A small percentage of survivors need and seek additional assistance; a growing body of research informed and shaped these psychological interventions. In addition, there is now greater awareness of and appreciation for culturally informed disaster assistance. The ubiquity of electronic communications instantaneously informs us of tragedy and also serves as an effective means to distribute useful psychological resources. Training has also been developed to strengthen disaster responder well-being and lessen the likelihood of vicarious traumatization.   

For the past three years, as DRN director, I have had the privilege of working weekly at Red Cross national headquarters. This direct and ongoing contact has enabled APA and ARC to strengthen its partnership and expand opportunities for psychologists.   

Jordan: How might a division work with DRN? 

Bird: The DRN program collaborates with several divisions to tap their expertise. As a network of state, provincial and territorial DRN programs, the DRN program is familiar with issues important to Div. 31 (State, Provincial and Territorial Psychological Association Affairs) and has benefitted from the division’s support of its convention programming. Conference programming as well as materials in the DRN Deployment Kit include experts and input from Div. 45 (Society for the Psychological Study of Ethic Minority Issues). DRN members were integrally involved in establishing Div. 56 (Trauma) and now participate as leaders and members; the division’s Disaster Relief Committee coordinates with the DRN program during large-scale disasters. In addition, DRN member contributed to Div. 17's (Society of Counseling Psychology) journal The Counseling Psychologist’s issue entitled "Counseling Psychology and Large-Scale Disasters, Catastrophes, and Traumas" (November, 2011), and hold division leadership positions. Also, the DRN program is thankful to Div. 1 (Society for General Psychology) for its past support of DRN convention programming. 

The expertise and knowledge of division members is important to informing and shaping the work of the DRN program. Division leaders interested in collaborating with APA’s DRN program are encouraged to contact Margie Bird of the DRN Office. Division members may also join the DRN program through their SPTAs.