To respond to contacts initiated by survivors, or to initiate contacts in a nonintrusive, compassionate, and helpful manner.
Your first contact with a survivor is important. If managed in a respectful and compassionate way, you can establish an effective helping relationship and increase the person’s receptiveness to further help. Your first priority should be to respond to survivors who seek you out. If a number of people approach you simultaneously, make contact with as many individuals as you can. Even a brief look of interest and calm concern can be grounding and helpful to people who are feeling overwhelmed or confused.
Culture Alert: The type of physical or personal contact considered appropriate may vary from person to person and across cultures and social groups, for example, how close to stand to someone, how much eye contact to make or whether or not to touch someone, especially someone of the opposite sex. Unless you are familiar with the culture of the survivor, you should not approach too closely, make prolonged eye contact, or touch. You should look for clues to a survivor’s need for “personal space,” and seek guidance about cultural norms from community cultural leaders who best understand local customs. In working with family members, find out who is the spokesperson for the family and initially address this person.
Some survivors may not seek your help, but may benefit from assistance. When you identify such persons, timing is important. Do not interrupt conversations. Do not assume that people will respond to your outreach with immediate positive reactions. It may take time for some survivors or bereaved persons to feel some degree of safety, confidence, and trust. If an individual declines your offer of help, respect his/her decision and indicate when and where to locate a Psychological First Aid provider later on.
Introduce yourself with your name, title, and describe your role. Ask for permission to talk to him/her, and explain that you are there to see if you can be of help. Unless given permission to do otherwise, address adult survivors using last names. Invite the person to sit, try to ensure some level of privacy for the conversation, and give the person your full attention. Speak softly and calmly. Refrain from looking around or being distracted. Find out whether there is any pressing problem that needs immediate attention. Immediate medical concerns have the utmost priority.
When making contact with children or adolescents, it is good practice to first make a connection with a parent or accompanying adult to explain your role and seek permission. If you speak with a child in distress when no adult is present, find a parent or caregiver as soon as possible to let him/her know about your conversation.
For example, in making initial contact, you might say:
Hello. My name is ___________. I work with __________. I’m checking in with people to see how they are doing, and to see if I can help in any way. Is it okay if I talk to you for a few minutes? May I ask your name? Mrs. Williams, before we talk, is there something right now that you need, like some water or fruit juice?
And is this your daughter? (Get on child’s eye level, smile and greet the child, using her/his name and speaking softly.) Hi Lisa, I’m ___________ and I’m here to try to help you and your family. Is there anything you need right now? There is some water and juice over there, and we have a few blankets and toys in those boxes.
Protecting the confidentiality of your interactions with children, adults, and families after a disaster can be challenging, especially given the lack of privacy in some postdisaster settings. However, maintaining the highest level of confidentiality possible in any conversation you have with survivors or disaster responders is extremely important. If you are a professional who belongs to a category of mandated reporters, you should abide by state abuse and neglect reporting laws. You should also be aware of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and the provisions related to disaster and terrorism. If you have questions about releasing information, discuss this with a supervisor or an official in charge. Talking to co-workers about the challenges of working in the post-disaster environment can be helpful, but any discussions organized for this purpose also need to preserve strict confidentiality.