It’s who you know

Margie Bird, director of the APA Disaster Response Network, helps coordinate disaster preparedness and response activities

By Communications Staff

Margie Bird September 30, 2011—Disaster Response Network (DRN) Director Margie Bird has spent more than a decade working with APA’s Disaster Response Network, a network of psychologists who prepare for, respond to and help people recover from disaster.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of APA’s Disaster Response Network.  In 1991, APA entered into a partnership with the American Red Cross (ARC) to develop training and other forms of disaster planning.  Since 1991, the DRN has grown to more than 3,000 members who engage in disaster preparedness and recovery activities, and help educate the public about common reactions to trauma.

As the program director, Bird focuses on response activities, resources and assistance, and program operations and disaster training.    

Response activities

Because psychologists are trained to help people cope with stress and strong emotions, they are able to help disaster survivors and relief workers understand their emotions, such as anger, distress and grief.

This spring and summer, DRN members across the country supported people affected by tornadoes, floods, hurricanes and wildfires:

  • In Missouri, several DRN members responded in the aftermath of tornadoes in Joplin 

  • In North Dakota, DRN Coordinator Kit O’Neill, PhD, helped lead flood relief efforts 

  • In Virginia, DRN Coordinator Jeffrey Katz, PhD, helped set up shelter and arrange disaster mental health response following hurricane Irene and a large tornado 

  • In Minnesota, DRN Coordinator Rebecca Thomley, PhD, supported shelter operations following a tornado in Minneapolis 

  • In Texas, DRN Coordinators Beckie Hamlin, PhD, and Judy Andrews, PhD, have been helping families evacuated from wildfire-stricken areas

Resources and assistance

The goal of disaster mental health response is to make resources and assistance available to individuals who may have more difficulty with coping. Though psychologists do not provide therapy at disaster sites, they can help people build on internal strengths to begin recovering from the disaster. 

The DRN office maintains a website of resources and information that DRN members can access, which includes an online deployment kit of tips and research highlights for members readying to respond to disaster. Articles with tips for managing disaster-related psychological distress are posted to the APA Help Center.

With more than 30,000 copies distributed over the past two years, the Road to Resilience brochure is one of the most popular resources available.

Program operations and disaster training

APA DRN staff and DRN program coordinators, who are individuals selected by their state, provincial or territorial psychological association (SPTA) to act as the program coordinator for their state, communicate primarily through a DRN listserv, which allows for the rapid dissemination of information.

Two newsletters – “The Buzz,” which reports up-to-date disaster news, research, resources and conference information, and “DRN in the Field,” which gathers information from coordinators on a monthly basis – distribute information to DRN members via the listserv regarding recent program activities such as training, disaster response drills and current response activities.

Currently, the DRN Advisory Committee and APA DRN office are gearing up for a weekend meeting of the DRN coordinators in Dallas, Texas, in November. The agenda includes a session to honor 9/11 with a review of related research and our members’ remembrances, a session on general population shelter procedures including special needs populations and a discussion about strategies for working with disaster response organizations.

“DRN coordinators really enjoy coming together to brainstorm and will leave feeling energized by the sharing of ideas and information,” says Bird.

Partnership with ARC

As the primary liaison between APA and the American Red Cross, Bird works in consultation with the ARC national headquarters to answer “questions that come up related to volunteering with the Red Cross, its training programs, or any problems members may encounter on disaster relief operations,” she says.

The American Red Cross offers training, planning and support to survivors and its relief workers, which “provides the means and structure for our members to engage in the disaster mental health work,” says Bird.

Because of the strength of APA’s partnership with the American Red Cross, Bird has been working onsite once a week at the American Red Cross national headquarters in its disaster operations center for two years. “This work enables me to find out the latest developments so I can share that information with our DRN membership,” she says. 

To commemorate the 20th anniversary of the network, Disaster Response Network members, Red Cross leadership and APA staff came together at the Newseum in Washington, DC during the 2011 APA Convention. The news museum venue was perfect, says Bird because the reception took place by the exhibit on Hurricane Katrina and “many of our members helped survivors and relief workers in the aftermath of some of the featured big news events like the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and Katrina.”

“I’ve seen the program through many disasters—the field has grown and changed a lot, especially since the attacks of September 11,” says Bird. “I think this history helps me deal with the day-to-day challenges and anticipate and prepare for future challenges.”

Bird credits her daily focus on disaster mental health with keeping her on her toes. “I am ready for disasters in ways I never would have been otherwise,” she says, “from sneakers and a bag of slightly-outdated clothes under my desk, to a fire escape plan at home. Being physically and psychologically prepared is a good thing.”

Learn more about APA activities in the wake of recent disasters and how you can join DRN and look for the article “The Changing Face of Disaster Mental Health” in the Fall 2011 issue of Good Practice Magazine. Follow Margie Bird on Twitter @margiebird.