By Associate Professor Joseph Reser FAPS and Dr Shirley Morrissey FAPS, Senior Lecturer, School of Psychology, Griffith University

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'Being prepared' simply makes good sense and is sound advice across many life situations and circumstances. Our language attests to this accepted folk wisdom and Scout motto: ‘be ready', ‘think ahead', ‘take care', ‘brace yourself'. In particularly challenging life circumstances, this salutary advice takes on more specific meaning and direction in terms of just what one should do to ‘be prepared' for emergency situations that may be particularly hazardous, extremely stressful or even life-threatening. Safety and survival checklists are routinely included in outdoor recreation manuals, emergency first aid guides and brochures available from the various government departments and city councils. In the disaster context, ‘preparedness' is both mantra and touchstone, being an essential component of all disaster management models and frameworks. But what is meant with respect to this broad notion of preparedness? A threat-focused heightened awareness, a careful consideration of adverse possibilities, an action checklist covering possible needs and contingencies? In the context of disasters and emergency situations, ‘preparedness' advice typically focuses exclusively on household preparations and actions, to prevent or mitigate damage and human and financial costs and loss.

Many bushfire pamphlets and guides address the decision about whether to go or stay by advising to go early "if you are not physically or mentally prepared to undertake fire fighting activities" or "if you do not think you are capable of dealing with the trauma associated with a bushfire situation". Such preparedness information, while making passing reference to ‘the psychological', provides very little indication about just how stressful such a situation might be. These sources also do not provide any psychological advice or strategies with respect to how people might best prepare themselves for such an emergency situation, or how they can best manage their emotions in the event that a rapidly advancing fire places their home and lives at immediate risk.

The importance of psychological preparedness

Unlike other types of action and system-based disaster preparedness, psychological preparedness involves processes and capacities such as knowledge, concern, anticipation, recognition, arousal, thinking, feeling, intentions and decision making, and management of one's thoughts, feelings and actions. A better understanding of one's own and other's psychological response in natural disaster warning situations helps people to feel more confident, more in control and better prepared, both psychologically and in terms of effective emergency planning. Being cooler, calmer and more collected is also a substantial aid to family members and others who may not be as well prepared for what is happening. Psychological preparedness can assist people to think clearly and rationally, which in turn may reduce the risk of serious injury and loss of life.

The matter of psychological preparedness takes on particular relevance in the context of the tragic bushfire experience in Victoria. A commonly expressed view of residents and fire fighters was that "We were not really prepared for what happened", referring as much to the ferocity, speed and intensity of the fire storms, as to the residents' own experience of feeling terrified, and, for many, not really knowing what to do when the fire was imminent. The psychological reality in fire storm circumstances such as those which engulfed the Victorian communities is very hard to imagine, however bushfire ‘seasoned' one is and no matter how much ‘one knows' about such circumstances ‘in theory'. Being directly involved in any potentially life-threatening bushfire or other emergency situation can be genuinely terrifying.

It is, of course, unrealistic to think that one can be fully prepared, emotionally and cognitively, for such a stressful and confronting situation as that experienced by many Victorians. Nonetheless, psychological preparedness can play a crucial role in emergency preparedness, in coping with the stress of the unfolding situation, and in limiting acute post-incident distress. This does not mean that one can be prepared for and ‘inoculated' against any eventuality, or that being psychologically prepared implies being emotionally ‘bullet-proof'. Common sense and expert psychological advice would suggest that being psychologically prepared also includes the knowledge and realistic anticipation that an emergency situation such as a bushfire or cyclone event can very quickly become unmanageable, wholly unpredictable and highly lethal. Being able to anticipate that such a situation could occur, and that it might overtax the capacity of one's psychological and physiological coping strategies is realistic and responsible, and allows one to ‘let go' when necessary, and rely on the expert advice of the emergency services - and the collective wisdom of disaster psychology research findings (e.g., Martin, Bender & Raisch, 2007). Being psychologically prepared in this bushfire context includes anticipating one's very probable decision stress with respect to staying to protect one's home, one's family and one's community, or making the anguish-ridden but often responsible decision to leave early but risk losing all.

What does psychological preparedness involve?

Psychological preparedness can be enhanced through the acquisition of specific psychological knowledge and strategies, and through direct and vicarious experience with emergency situations and scenarios. Procedures such as stress inoculation, emotion management and stress reduction, for example, can be successfully learned and utilised by those likely to experience an emergency or disaster event (e.g., Meichenbaum, 1996).

The APS Tip Sheet, Preparing for and Coping with the Threat and Experience of Natural Disasters, utilises a stress inoculation approach to assist individuals to prepare themselves as well as their households for disasters. There are three essential elements in psychologically preparing for an impending disaster - to anticipate the anxiety and concerns that will arise; to identify uncomfortable or distressing thoughts and emotions that may cause further anxiety; and to find ways of managing the responses so that one's coping capacity remains as effective as possible. An easy way to remember the skills involved in psychological preparedness is to focus on AIMing for psychological as well as emergency household preparedness.

A I M: Three elements of psychological preparedness

ANTICIPATE that you will be feeling worried or anxious and remember these are normal, although not always helpful, responses to a possibly life-threatening situation

IDENTIFY what the specific physical feelings associated with anxiety and other emotions are and whether you are having any frightening thoughts that are adding to the fear  

MANAGE your responses using controlled breathing and self-talk so that you stay as calm as possible and can focus on the practical tasks that need attending to

 

Psychological preparedness neither can nor should take the place of household and property disaster preparedness, but knowing how a situation is likely to be experienced can assist in managing one's anxiety and overall psychological response while attending to emergency tasks, and in making clearer and better decisions about whether to stay or leave in the face of a severe and imminent disaster threat.

Research on psychological preparedness

The value and effectiveness of psychological preparedness advice in natural disaster warning situations has received initial and promising empirical support (Morrissey & Reser, 2003), and draws from extensive, evidence-based clinical and health research literatures (e.g., Zeidner & Endler, 1996). However, it is very important that further research be undertaken to document the efficacy and most strategic use of such interventions across the spectrum of disaster situations to foster psychological as well as household disaster preparedness. It may also be the case that the contemporary nature of bushfires and bushfire risk in Australia challenges the reasonableness of thinking that one's self evaluation of being ‘mentally prepared', in the absence of any other psychological advice, is an adequate or realistic decision criterion for the extremely stressful circumstances that staying with one's home in the face of a major fire might entail.

Recommendations

The stark reality of unfolding global climate changes and their increasingly evident impacts with respect to the frequency and intensity of natural disasters in Australia gives the matter of psychological preparedness for disasters a compelling currency and relevance. Along with dramatic residential expansion in wooded and coastal areas, the world's changing weather patterns are ushering in a dramatically heightened risk of natural disaster impacts. Wild fires in southern California in 2007 caused the largest mass migration in the United States since Hurricane Katrina, displacing close to a million residents and devastating over 1,600 square kilometres, in a context where more than 8.6 million homes have been built within 50 kilometres of national forest since the early 1980s in California alone. Increasingly disaster mental health, rural mental health, and climate change impacts are becoming overlapping and intertwined discussions and focused policy considerations, in Australia, New Zealand and overseas (e.g., Morrissey & Reser, 2007). Similarly, climate change mitigation and adaptation initiatives in Australia are seriously addressing what are the key elements in fostering adaptive and resilient human communities.

There could be considerable merit in seeing where a more serious consideration of psychological preparedness might take us, at individual, community and societal levels, in this global context of dramatic environmental changes and increasingly frequent human tragedies of unprecedented scale and consequence. Specifically, information on psychological preparedness should be made available to the general public from reliable sources such as in newspaper supplements during disaster seasons, and in the standard disaster preparation materials produced by emergency services and other organisations. n

The principal author can be contacted at jreser@bigpond.net.au.

References

Australian Psychological Society. (2007). Preparing for and coping with the threat and experience of natural disasters. Melbourne: APS www.psychology.org.au.

Martin, I.M., Bender, H., & Raish, C. (2007). What motivates individuals to protect themselves from risks: The case of wildland fires. Risk Analysis, 27, 887-900.

Meichenbaum, D. (1996). Stress inoculation training for coping with stressors. Clinical Psychologist, 49, 4-7.

Morrissey, S.A., & Reser, J.P. (2007). Natural disasters, climate change and mental health considerations for rural Australia. Australian Journal of Rural Health, 15, 120-125.

Morrissey, S.A., & Reser, J.P. (2003). Evaluating the effectiveness of psychological preparedness advice in community cyclone preparedness materials. Australian Journal of Emergency Management, 18, 44-59.

Zeidner, M., & Endler, N.S. (Eds). (1996). Handbook of coping: Theory, research, applications. New York: Wiley.