The Disaster Response Network

The Disaster Response Network (DRN) is a group of licensed mental health professionals who volunteer their time and expertise to fulfill the mission of the American Red Cross to prevent and alleviate human suffering in the face of emergencies.

The DRN was formed in 1992, the result of an agreement between the American Psychological Association and the American Red Cross, with the goal to develop a multi-disciplinary approach to disaster response that included management of traumatic stress.  Today, there are Stress Teams in most states, comprised of an array of mental health professionals who are deployed by the Red Cross as needed.  In general, local teams respond to local crises such as fires and floods, but may be called into service on a national level in the event of a large scale disaster that overwhelms the resources of local or regional chapters.  In addition, the American Psychological Association leadership provides and/or critiques brochures and other materials going to disaster sites.

Licensed psychologists take Red Cross training before joining the Stress Team, to learn about the hierarchy of response efforts in different situations and basic first aid.  Participation in this training results in professional liability coverage in the field under the Red Cross policy.  In Minneapolis/St. Paul, the team meets at the Red Cross’s Minneapolis headquarters once a month for planning and additional training.  Drills address responses to many different kinds of disaster: a fire, airport crash or nuclear power crisis, a shooting or fire. Members of the team are asked to rotate being “on call,” although individuals can choose to opt out of that responsibility.

In addition to responding to many natural disasters, the DRN was on scene in Oklahoma City after the bombing at the Federal Building.  Since that time, DRN teams have responded to the aftermath of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, and the tornado in Joplin, Missouri, among many large-scale disasters.  Locally, the DRN team’s most difficult response was after the collapse of the I-35 bridge.  The drills and preparation that had been done in the previous months were in evidence as the volunteers and community worked together with utmost professionalism.  Multi-disciplinary teams were most recently working in Boston.

First responders and other disaster relief workers are as likely to need services as the disaster victims themselves. The Stress Team member needs to be ready to jump into a number of roles, and to interact with a wide variety of people.  In any disaster situation, the community will be focused on meeting basic needs in the first days or weeks following the event.  For example, an elderly person might need assistance in getting their prescription refilled if the local pharmacy is closed or gone, or if a trusted caregiver can no longer get to their home.  A family might need help in setting the wheels in motion to locate a beloved family pet, or need someone to listen while they grieve the losses they have suffered.  Psychologists should expect to be out in the field, working among other disaster relief volunteers, and doing what needs to be done in the moment to get people back on their feet.

Unfortunately, psychological trauma often continues well past the departure of most volunteers.  My company, Orion Associates, formed the non-profit Headwaters Relief Organization in the aftermath of Katrina, when it was clear that there were few local resources – particularly in the poor and hard-hit Ninth Ward – for helping people to cope with the ongoing trauma around them.  The River of Hope project was launched to provide both mental health and home building resources to the poor and elderly who had been left behind when other relief efforts ended, assuring that structures and resilience could be built side-by-side.  More than 800 River of Hope volunteers have made relief trips to the Ninth Ward, including construction workers, plumbers, electricians, roofers, social workers and psychologists and other community members.  In 2007, the organization deepened its commitment to the Ninth Ward by establishing the River of Hope Mental Health Resource Center in partnership with the New Salem Baptist Church.  This free, walk-in clinic continues to provide an essential service in a community that has permanently lost most of its resident mental health professionals.  Since its inception, River of Hope has responded to many natural disasters, from tornadoes in Wadena, North Minneapolis and Cedar Rapids to floods in Fargo and Duluth, to Hurricane Sandy in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

Psychologists and other mental health professionals are in demand in a wide variety of settings, and there is a specific need for more practitioners of color, who are underrepresented in the DRN.  In addition, more responders are needed from outside of the Twin Cities Metro. In the coming year the Regional Chapter will be seeking ways to reach Greater Minnesota volunteers with more regular drills and training.   If you are interested in pursuing relief work and are interested in exploring additional options, there are several suggestions for further inquiry noted below.[1]

No matter where or when you are called, the opportunity to be of service in the middle of chaos is a life-changing experience.  Disasters do not discriminate, and volunteers often find themselves in unfamiliar communities making relatively brief but intense human connections with people they would have never otherwise met.  Psychologists will find their listening skills to be invaluable, hearts sometimes heavy with the destruction around them, but spirits soaring with the power of the shared experience.  Disaster response calls for you to be present in the moment, and compassionate as you see people at their most vulnerable.  Most who volunteer will tell you that they receive as much – or more – than they give.

Rebecca Thomley, Psy.D., L.P., is the CEO of Orion Associates and maintains a private practice. She has been a Red Cross volunteer since 1992 and currently functions as state mental health lead for the Red Cross. In addition she is a state and regional representative to APA’s Disaster Response Network.


[1] Among the Minnesota organizations that utilize psychologists in their relief work are the Medical Reserve Corps of Hennepin County,  Minnesota Responds at the Department of Health, and the International Critical Stress Foundation.

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