Emergency Response: Coping With Crisis and Disaster Relief Work

My second counseling job out of college was with Cornell University’s Cooperative Extension as what started out to be a phone information and referral
counselor for  farm families having trouble staying afloat. I went into this job being very excited to help because I spent summers on my relatives’ dairy farms, and thought I had some inkling as to what it was like to work and live on a dairy farm. This job, however, quickly changed from info and referral to crisis counseling in a hurry. We phone counselors dealt with distraught, suicidal people, families impacted by incest, people running out of food, having the electricity shut off (a disaster for a dairy farm), imminent bankruptcy, you name it. I had the night shift for 2.5 years, and I was pretty much flying solo, working 2 phones at once, sometimes with a client on one line and the county sheriff on the other. I am glad I had the chance to work in this job, but the stress was hard. When that phone rang, you never knew what the problem was going to be.

The same kinds of stress are faced by disaster relief and humanitarian aid  workers. They have an idea of what the problems are, but there are always surprises, and the solutions that are applied do not always solve the problems. These workers are also often still out in the field working when the disaster or humanitarian needs disappear from the headlines.

Here are some things that may help if you provide crisis, disaster or emergency humanitarian relief:

*Talk to someone. Build a support system of family, friends and co-workers. Especially co-workers, because they understand what you are experiencing.

*Get some down time for yourself to relax during and after your work. Make sure you are eating and sleeping.

*Remind yourself of your accomplishments, strengths and skills. Helping someone through an ordeal is a huge accomplishment, and it takes trained, emotionally strong people to do this.

*Get out and participate in other activities. Do not hide at home.

If you feel isolated, are having trouble eating or sleeping, are anxious and using alcohol, food or drugs to ease your fears, are sick all the time or are depressed, talk with a counselor. Many agencies who provide disaster relief have counseling programs set up to help their workers. Counselors also participate in co-counseling programs where they are paired with other counselors to talk out their feelings about what they do. Helping others should not be allowed to have a prolonged negative impact on your life.

Four People Dead: NY, You Still Have Time

Leaving NYC

It is a little past noon on Saturday as I sit here in Cali, watching the East coast. Four people have already died, and we are not even through the first day of the weekend. Latest death: an 11-year-old boy in Newport News, an area under evacuation orders, crushed to death by a tree falling on his apartment building. Do you really need any more incentive to evacuate, NYC?

Having “no place to go” is not an excuse anymore. There are shelters set up outside the evacuation areas. If you cannot get to the shelters on your own, prevail upon a neighbor, friends or call the emergency management authorities in your area. Towns along the East coast are ordering extra body bags. There. Is that enough incentive? Please, please, please, just leave….

Map of evacuation zones and shelters for NYC here.

We Interrupt This Regularly Scheduled Blog…

Remember This Category 5 Hurricane?


OK, I’m interrupting my “regularly scheduled blog” with a new post. Many Americans are going to be directly in the path of Hurricane Irene in the next few days. Please, PLEASE, if you are in an area that is calling for evacuations, leave. Do not “eff” around. This is a very, very dangerous hurricane. Yes, I know some people are upset because they are losing out on their last precious few summer vacation days. I understand. We all work hard and are entitled to a vacation, just not one that could end up getting you killed.

The media is chock-a-block full of stories about how we are lazy, spoiled Americans with too many luxury gadgets. I am urging you to use them. We have state-of-the-art weather forecasting in this country, such as it is. Pay attention. We were warned prior to the landfall of Hurricane Katrina, yet many people ignored the warnings and so many died. You know what? I have no problem looking like an idiot if for some reason Hurricane Irene peters out before landfall. If you are considering just “riding it out,” please don’t. Just leave. Stay safe.

Job Perks

Downtown Trolley

As I sat at my desk the other day, trying to ignore the shrieks and giggles coming from the impromptu daycare center across the hall, my eyes fell upon a piece of paper on my desk: the bill of sale for my car. It now has been over 4 months since I sold my car, and I find that I really do not miss it — not the hassle of trying to start it, finding a parking place or avoiding the crazy drivers downtown. Good thing, too, since parking fees just went up yesterday…

This is one of the perks of freelancing: I do not really need a car anymore as I work out of my apartment. If I need to get around and can’t walk, I can always use this cute trolley that makes stops downtown.

Get Up. Show Up.


Blink of an eye...

Yes, I am a worrier.  I stopped worrying about my own situation after I realized I somehow always manage to land on my feet no matter what. Although I’ve found something else to worry about now. I keep hearing and reading about how the unemployment numbers are dropping because people are too discouraged to look for work. That worries me. At two years shy of 50 and an AARP card, I’ve realized that life is going by so fast, it is breathtaking and alarming at the same time.

So this is what I tell friends and others I run into who are discouraged and having a hard time looking for work: You have to get up and show up for your life. Every day. Even when it sucks really badly. The time that you are stuck in unemployment limbo is still part of your precious time on earth. Don’t waste it. Get out there and learn something new, help someone else, travel to a place you’ve never been. Because it all goes by in a very quick blink of the eye…






Girly Emergencies At Work

Heh heh. Let's scare the crap out of her.

Ok, after surviving the tortures of two older brothers and many cousins and many years of  living on my own, I do not consider myself too girly girly. I just can’t be. When it comes to bat, bomb or bug disposal, it’s up to me and only me. And I’ve done it all, from getting rid of the bat in my apartment that freaked out when I put on an Enya CD to running the giant raccoon off my deck. That does not mean that they did not hear me shrieking in TX while doing it.

So here I am in CA nervously reading about the death of a guy bitten by a vampire bat (bitten in Mexico, died here) when my desk explodes. Everything, papers and all, went flying up in the air. I hear this whirring noise and IT lands on my bed. My BED!!! Ewww, and it is almost bedtime. Crap.

Okay, it’s like a cockroach — it sees me coming and scuttles away. Great. All right it’s green, that’s good, right? It can’t be a bat, I’ve never seen a green bat. Holy crap, where did this thing come from? My screens are on, my apt door is closed, but it is hopping all over the place. Dang grasshopper.

One trap made from an “I heart NY” cup and tablet later and this sucker is out the door, minus a wee green antenna or leg, sorry dude. But I hope you don’t come back. I’m getting too damn old for this…

Ow! Work is a Pain!

By now, most employers know it is more cost efficient to buy adjustable workstations and office chairs than it is to pay for workers’ compensation claims for repetitive motion injuries. Unfortunately, if you are small like me, or really, really tall like my friend Tom, you know that one-size-fits-all office furniture can be a real pain. The key word here is adjustable. The more options you have for adjusting office furniture, the easier it will be to find the right working height for you.

Like I’ve mentioned, I’m really small, so it took me awhile to find the right workstation and office chair for my at-home office. But it was worth the extra time it took. My chair allows my thighs to be parallel to the floor with my feet flat on a foot rest. The chair bottom is long enough to support my legs and to allow them to hang at a 90 degree angle. My arms are also pretty much at a right angle to the keyboard. I’m still working on getting the top of my computer screen at about eye level, but it is pretty good for now. I also try to use task lighting instead of overhead lighting to minimize glare. I finally decided to move my workstation away from the windows for that reason, and it is actually cooler during the day too.

I find it difficult when I am immersed in a project to take breaks and look away from the screen, but I know when I haven’t been doing these things, because everything starts to hurt. My eyes get tired. Incorrect keyboard and chair height can lead to back, arm, wrist and finger pain. Tendons swell, get inflamed and take several days to heal. It’s amazing how one little wrong adjustment can make you miserable and keep you in pain indefinitely.

Not all of us who work from home work at a workstation, either. Improper form and height isn’t such a big deal when you are sitting on the floor, a couch, the beach or at a cafe table for a couple of hours. But try working at these same places for hours on end with few breaks, and the same kinds of pain can occur.

Some things to help:

Get up and take a break every hour or two. This gives your eyes a rest and gets the blood flowing.

Use an arm pillow (called a husband in some parts of the US – click here for pic) if you are sitting on the floor, a bed or a couch. It is a large pillow with side arms that will support your weight when you lean back on it.

Place a foot rest under your feet if you cannot adjust the chair and keyboard so that your arms and legs are parallel to the floor.

Try a wrist rest, but do not allow your wrists to remain on it while typing. Only use it for quick breaks. Studies have shown that actually resting your wrists on the rest while typing can actually exacerbate carpal tunnel problems.

Make sure you are not resting your elbows on the chair arms or picking up your shoulders while you type. Both of these things can cause nerve impingement at the elbows and at the thoracic outlet where the nerves run under the collar bones.

When you accept a new job, ask to see where you will work. Make sure the office furniture is adjustable and request whatever you think you will need to keep your work free from pain. Adjust your equipment before you start working.

Reconfigure your desk area so that the things you use most often are within reach. For example, straining to reach a phone on the far corner of your desk puts wear and tear on your body as well.

Check out classes in Alexander or Feldenkreiss techniques. Both deal with learning strain-free body movements.