Cover Story

As television and radio broadcast reports of horrifying tragedy in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, hundreds of psychologists sprang into action to assist survivors and emergency rescue workers at the disaster sites, as well as other sites across the United States.

Many of these volunteer psychologists are members of the APA Disaster Response Network (DRN)--which was activated by APA's Practice Directorate and the Red Cross just after the second plane hit the World Trade Center.

The DRN works collaboratively with the American Red Cross and other relief organizations to provide licensed psychologists on site to aid disaster victims and relief workers. More than 2,000 psychologists have received required disaster response training and are DRN members.

In the event of a large-scale disaster like the events of Sept. 11, where volunteers from around the country are needed, the national headquarters of the Red Cross contacts the DRN through APA's Practice Directorate.

"We were in contact with the Red Cross before noon" for updates on expected mental health strategy and when APA would receive specific instructions for DRN members, said Marguerite Schroeder, APA's DRN director. Word was sent to DRN members, by e-mail to state psychological association DRN coordinators, to immediately contact local Red Cross chapters.

DRN members responded immediately. In New York, most telephone lines in Manhattan were down or jammed with calls so DRN members just began to show up at the New York headquarters of the Red Cross at 66th Street and Amsterdam Avenue in Manhattan with photo identification and licenses. Word spread to go there--even with limited phone contact. June Feder, PhD, DRN coordinator for New York, helped send volunteers to other locations around the city where they were needed, including ground zero and a compassion center for the families and friends of those missing.

In the Washington area, Virginia DRN coordinator Rosemary Schwartzbard, PhD, received word from the Red Cross to go to the Pentagon that night. She mobilized the local group of DRN professionals to see families who lost loved ones, speak with the workers combing through the debris and provide food, hot beverages, dry clothing and rain gear to the rescue teams and firefighters.

"The small group who had been trained came out immediately and put in long hours at the Pentagon," she said.

DRN members set up Red Cross response sites at Virginia's Dulles, Boston's Logan and Los Angeles' airports to help the families and friends of those on the hijacked planes as well as airport personnel. They were also available to take phone calls from flight personnel around the world who were anxious about flying. And DRN members from around the country were flown by the Red Cross to the disaster sites in New York and at the Pentagon once air travel resumed.

An established network

Many DRN members have been dedicated to the work of the DRN since it was launched in 1992. Recognizing that mental health professionals had been excluded from disaster assistance, APA and the Red Cross developed a joint project to include licensed psychologists in the Red Cross's cadre of trained volunteers. In fact, APA was the first mental health organization to sign a statement of understanding with the American Red Cross in 1991.

The DRN was unveiled the next year during APA's centennial celebration, and since then more than 2,000 psychologists have volunteered their professional skills to communities affected by disasters. DRN members have responded to many events, such as the Northridge, Calif., earthquake in 1994; the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995; the crash of TWA flight 800 in 1996; and the school shootings in Santee, Calif., and the Seattle earthquake this year.

The DRN functions include:

  • Providing pro bono services to communities affected by trauma, crisis and disaster.

  • Providing access to disaster mental health training for its members.

  • Supporting members in their provision of trauma-related services.

  • Coordinating collaboration with other organizations providing trauma and disaster relief services.

DRN members work not only with the Red Cross but also with fire departments, police and emergency rescue personnel, for example. In the wake of the Sept. 11 tragedies, the DRN worked with the New York Municipal Labor Council and the New York State Psychological Association to set up help centers for union laborers. And, in coordination with the New York Police Department Missing Persons department, DRN members staffed missing persons hotlines.

Said Schwartzbard, who serves on APA's DRN Advisory Committee, "The committee's job normally is to make the DRN stronger and generate interest." Now, she related, the interest in being part of a network that truly goes to the center of disaster and helps survivors "has definitely increased."

Russ Newman, PhD, JD, APA's executive director for practice, said psychology must do more of this type of work, in times of disaster or in times of calm.

"The DRN brings psychology where it needs to be--into the community," said Newman. "The expertise of the DRN enables us to bring what we know to the community, under difficult circumstances and short notice."

In the face of such devastating tragedy, disaster-trained psychologists were truly on the front lines providing essential support to survivors and witnesses. "I've heard from many people who have simply said how proud they are to be psychologists when they see what their organization is doing to respond to this disaster," said Newman.

Further Reading

For more information about how to become a member of the Disaster Response Network, contact Marguerite Schroeder.