Dr Susie Burke MAPS
Senior Researcher, Public Interest
National Office

The APS and the Australian Red Cross signed a Memorandum of Understanding in December last year which links the two organisations and will lead to the improved delivery of emergency services. Under the agreement, the Red Cross will provide training for APS psychologists on how to work effectively in an emergency situation, so they may become approved Red Cross volunteers. Conversely, Red Cross volunteers will receive training in ‘psychological first aid' for those affected by emergencies and disasters. The aim is also to facilitate the provision of on-site support by APS psychologists to Red Cross volunteers, staff and community members during emergency operations. The agreement will enable the two organisations to work together to prepare communities for disaster so that they are more resilient, do not suffer unnecessary or prolonged distress, and are able to recover more quickly. The MoU represents an historic step towards a world class disaster response in Australia.

Roundtable meeting on psychological first aid

As one of the first joint APS/Australian Red Cross initiatives, a roundtable meeting of experts was held to discuss the concept of psychological first aid (PFA). PFA is an intervention that has gained increasing popularity around the world over the past few years as an initial response following disasters and emergencies. As with many new and quickly-adopted concepts, its widespread usage also means that it has multiple definitions and ways of being operationalised, which can cause confusion and uncertainty. By bringing together Australian disaster experts from the Red Cross, psychology, psychiatry and government, we were able to begin clarifying the language and agreeing on some shared definitions of PFA.

Following a disaster or an emergency, people are likely to experience a range of distressing reactions like confusion, shock, grief, hopelessness, helplessness, shame, anxiety and loss of confidence. The contacts that are made with people in this acute phase can help to reduce their initial distress and pain, and set them up to be able to activate their own natural recovery. The key elements of PFA are based around basic common principles of support - promote safety, security, calm, connectedness, self-efficacy, help and hope. These core components have been drawn from the literature on risk and resilience, field experience, expert consensus and key sources in the disaster literature.

The use of the term first aid is also meaningful. PFA is best understood as the first thing to do, or to try, as a way of supporting someone following a disaster or emergency. It is a term geared towards an immediate response. In the majority of cases, PFA is useful immediately following a disaster, in the hours, days and weeks after an event, but it can also be useful as a first response or contact for people some months down the track. The Red Cross, for example, uses personal support volunteers to deliver PFA immediately following an emergency, but is also beginning to deliver PFA as an outreach program several months later by visiting people's homes, checking on how they are going, making connections and providing information.

The roundtable meeting concluded with a decision to collaborate on a brief Australian manual of PFA, to be endorsed by multiple organisations working in disaster preparedness and response throughout Australia. The purpose of this manual will be to orient people working in disaster preparedness, response and recovery to current best practice in PFA in the Australian context, and will include information on its aims, core components, when, where and who it is for, and who can deliver it. Importantly, the manual will also include information on what PFA is not. It is not debriefing, not diagnosing, not treatment, and not counselling.

We will provide further information on the manual when it has been developed and will let members know of future training opportunities with the Red Cross via APS Matters, the APS Disaster Response Network (DRN), and InPsych.

Signing of the MoU between the APS and the Australian Red Cross. Pictured L-R: Robert Tickner, CEO, Australian Red Cross, Dr Susie Burke, Senior Researcher, APS National Office, Andrew Coghlan, National Manager, Emergency Services, Red Cross and Professor Bob Montgomery, APS President
Signing of the MoU between the APS and the Australian Red Cross. Pictured L-R: Robert Tickner, CEO, Australian Red Cross, Dr Susie Burke, Senior Researcher, APS National Office, Andrew Coghlan, National Manager, Emergency Services, Red Cross and Professor Bob Montgomery, APS President

InPsych February 2010