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Psychological Effects Of Terrorism 
Can Affect Firefighter Performance
By Terence T. Gorski
January 14, 2001

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Posted On: January 14, 2001          Updated On: January 14, 2002
© Terence T. Gorski, 2001

Psychological Effects Of Terrorism 
Can Affect Firefighter Performance
By Terence T. Gorski
January 14, 2001

<Complete Coverage Of Terrorist Attacks For Firefighters>

   The psychological effects of terrorism 
   can affect the performance of firefighters
   and other emergency professionals.  The
   attacks of September 11th have had a
   significant effect upon upon many if not
   most firefighters across the country and
   around the world.  

  There are two common psychological
  effects to terrorist violence:  

     Critical Incident Stress Reactions (CISR), which occurs during or within 6 - 12 weeks following the critical incident, and 

     Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which can last for months or years following the incident unless proper treatment is received.

There are clear indicators that at least 80% of fire and emergency personnel responding large scale disasters experience moderate to severe symptoms of Critical Incident Stress Reactions (CISR) during or shortly after the incident.  This is a normal response to an abnormally stressful and dangerous situation.  In most cases the CISR symptoms will diminish by themselves without treatment in about 70% of the cases.  This is especially true if the emergency professionals and their families have completed pre-incident preparation to deal with the traumatic effects of large scale disaster.   In 30% of the cases, however, the CISR will progress into a more severe and long-lasting case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

There are several new aspects to the September 11th Terrorist Attacks that are breaking new ground.  The first new aspect is the overwhelming extent of the death destruction.  Even after visiting Ground Zero in New York it was difficult to imagine the number of people killed and the amount of property destroyed within a period of several hours. 

The second new aspect is the large number of emergency services personnel killed in the tragedy.  Never before have so many fire fighter, police officers, and other emergency first responders been killed in response to a single disaster.  This produces both intense grief at the loss of fellows.

The third factor is the wide spread coverage of the disaster on television.  At least 80% of all Americans watched repeated replays of the terrorist attacks.  About 50% will develop CISR and of those who develop CISR about 30% will then develop the symptoms of PTSD.

The fourth new aspect is the ongoing risk as the threat of terrorism continues.  Emergency professionals are more likely to be affected by the ongoing terrorist threat because they are the designated first responders for future attacks in the communities.   Although uniformed professionals have always known they were high risk targets, this risk was dramatically dramatically driven home on September 11th.  Every emergency call can trigger those memories as a bleak reminder of personal and professional vulnerability.

The fifth new aspect is the need to study the terrorist disasters in depth.  Most, if not all, firefighters have not only watched the terrorist attacks, but have studied them in detail as a part of their job.  As professionals, we all know that there are lessons to be learned f4rom these horrible disasters.  Failure to learn these lesson can cost more lives in the future.  But these lessons must be learned by looking into the abyss of death and destruction.  And whenever we look into the abyss, the abyss tends to strike back by causing a deep sense of physical and emotional horror and revulsion.  Reviewing films and detailed accounts of the death and destruction to learn the lessons necessary to save lives in the future can trigger critical incident reactions even in experienced professionals.  

All of these factors can create a natural tendency for emergency professionals to experience anxiety and flash-back type reactions when responding to calls that activate memories of the terrorist attacks is normal and common.  The following article illustrates the typical reactions caused by unresolved Critical incident Stress.  There are simple procedures that firefighters can learn to help them manage and resolve these symptoms.

<Complete Coverage Of Terrorist Attacks For Firefighters>

Florida Plane Crash: Reaction: Sept. 11 Haunted Tampa Rescue Team
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (January 7, 2002)

<Complete Coverage Of Terrorist Attacks For Firefighters>

Tampa --- A troubled teen's suicide flight set off strange, small-scale echoes of Sept. 11 in downtown Tampa.

Standing quietly in Sunday's early morning darkness, people came by and stared, more in fascination than horror, at the plane's tail still sticking out of the building. Office lights glared on floors above and below it.

The plane eventually was removed from the inside, pulled in with rescue equipment, then sawed into pieces and taken down by elevator.

But until he arrived on the scene about 20 minutes after the crash, Capt. Bill Wade, of the Tampa Fire Rescue Department, said he had "butterflies" thinking about the similarities to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"I couldn't stop those images from coming back and the feelings I had on September 11," he said. "Other firefighters said they felt the same thing and tried to suppress it. They knew what they were going to and what the job was."

Wade said the plane, piloted by Charles Bishop, 15, caused no fire, and it was clear early on that damage was minimal. About 20 employees preparing for a dinner party that night on the top floors of the Tampa Club didn't know anything had happened until alarms went off.

"Until I physically saw what the challenges were, that's when I said, 'We can handle this. That building is not coming down,' " Wade said.

But firefighters were alert to the possibility of a second attack. They noticed each time TV news and police helicopters buzzed overhead.

"We all saw it happen on September 11," Wade said. "We didn't believe it could happen then. Now we know it can happen."

Several hours into the dismantling of the plane, in which Bishop's body still sat, someone noticed a cord hanging from one of his pockets. The bomb squad was called in. After about 20 minutes, keys were found at the end of the cord. "That was 15 or 20 minutes of high tension," Wade said. "That might not have happened on September 10."

Copyright 2002 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

<Complete Coverage Of Terrorist Attacks For Firefighters>


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