Cover Story

Coordinating care at LAX

Southern California Disaster Response Network Coordinator Merritt Schreiber, PhD, with the DRN since 1993, was just waking up on Sept. 11 when he got a call from a Red Cross colleague alerting him to the disaster. He helped coordinate the DRN response at his local chapter--activating the "call down" system of mental health volunteers and participating in staff meetings to determine needs at the local level. He also organized mental health services at the chapter, including support to the blood-donation staff and the large number of people who waited in line to donate blood. Schreiber has a clinical child practice and is on staff at the National Center for Child Posttraumatic Stress at the University of California, Los Angeles, working on a pediatric mental health triage system.

In the following days, as airports were reopened, Schreiber worked as an assistant mental health officer for the American Red Cross operation at Los Angeles International Airport, providing services to airline employees and to stranded and anxious travelers, including family members of the flight victims of American Airlines flights 77 and 11 and United flight 175. He coordinated care for arriving and departing family members of victims and operated a "family assistance center."

Due to increased security precautions, people were arriving early for flights, so Schreiber and others had opportunities to offer support for those who sought it.

"I was able to speak with a family that was traveling and had many questions about how their child was reacting to the loss of their loved one," he said.

Schreiber also assisted with family members' feelings about flying and flight delays. "In some cases," he says, "we were just a supportive presence in the background, able to respond if needed."

Comforting anxious fliers

As the mental health adviser for the greater Los Angeles chapter of the Red Cross, Bonnita Wirth, PhD, a DRN member, started packing her bags as soon as she heard the news. Within a few hours, Wirth was at the Los Angeles Red Cross's Emergency Operations Center, where she and two assistant mental health officers worked long hours to ensure that all of the Los Angeles Red Cross efforts were staffed around the clock with mental health professionals.

Over eight days, Wirth and her colleagues assigned more than 150 Red Cross mental health volunteers to support hotline volunteers, stranded passengers, blood donor centers, victims' families and the airline employees who greeted victims' loved ones at Los Angeles Airport. They also offered comfort to anxious fliers in the terminals when flights resumed.

Since all flights were grounded, many airlines couldn't send help to their employees in Los Angeles. "We worked with the affected carriers' employee assistance personnel to assist in whatever way we could," said Wirth. "Here were all of these flight crews who had to deal with what had occurred not only in terms of workplace violence, but also the fact that they're supposed to get back in the air again."

Wirth and other Red Cross volunteers continued their efforts outside of the airport by holding psychoeducational community meetings, providing referrals and offering time-limited pro bono services to victims' loved ones and others affected by the tragedy.

The enormity of the tragedies affected her and her colleagues in ways that other disasters have not, Wirth said: "We are all working with our own anxiety, fear, confusion and profound grief as we assist the victims." That means that psychologists may notice more fatigue than usual, she said, and should make time to process the events for themselves.

Connecting people with people

Immediately after the disaster, Rick Allen, PhD, the northern California DRN coordinator, worked with psychologists to help them get connected to the Red Cross and provided information about trauma to psychologists and the media.

"It's important for us to provide education to the public about the traumatic stress reaction--what's normal, how to cope and when to get assistance," said Allen, who was assigned to Homestead, Fla., after Hurricane Andrew in 1993 and has worked at numerous other disasters and traumatic incidents. "The majority of people affected probably won't seek services, so it's important for them to get the information, [increasing] the likelihood that they will then seek assistance."

As a DRN coordinator for eight years, Allen was impressed with the number of psychologists who wanted to offer additional help--and knows first-hand that the work they're doing brings great rewards. "You really feel like you make a difference in people's lives."