Volunteer firefighters need care / Experts will treat PTSD, survivor’s guilt

Posted on June 21, 2011. Filed under: mental health | Tags: , , , , |

The Yomiuri Shimbun

The government will dispatch mental health experts to the three prefectures worst hit by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami to provide counseling for voluntary firefighters who may have been traumatized when they responded to the disaster.

In the face of imminent tsunami, many volunteers did such dangerous work as trying to manually close floodgates and leading people to safety.

Previously, mental health counseling had been provided only to professional firefighters, but the Fire and Disaster Management Agency of the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry has decided to offer counseling to volunteers, too.

The experts will counsel the members of the local volunteer firefighting associations in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures for such problems as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

In the three prefectures, a total of 249 voluntary firefighters died or went missing in the disaster.

Volunteer firefighters usually are ordinary citizens who help extinguish fires and provide logistical support to their local fire departments. They also participate in local disaster management activities.

They are regarded as part-time special local public servants.

In the event of a large-scale disaster, volunteer firefighters work to limit disaster damage by, for example, evacuating residents and closing floodgates.

According to the agency, as of April 2010, municipal governments across the nation had 2,275 teams of local volunteer firefighters with a total membership of about 883,000.

The agency will dispatch psychiatrists and clinical psychotherapists belonging to its mental health support team for emergencies, which was established in 2003.

The team has dispatched experts 30 times for serious accidents and disasters, including the train derailment on JR West’s Fukuchiyama Line in 2005.

In the three disaster-hit prefectures, there are about 80,000 local volunteer firefighters in total. In Iwate Prefecture, 116 volunteer firefighters died or went missing, the highest number among the three prefectures.

In Iwate and Miyagi prefectures, a total of 27 professional firefighters died or went missing. Thirty police officers belonging to the prefectural police forces were killed or went missing.

In Rikuzen-Takata, Iwate Prefecture, 50 volunteer firefighters died while trying to evacuate residents after a tsunami warning was issued.

In the prefecture’s Iwaizumicho, four volunteer firefighters narrowly survived when they stayed on a flood barrier until just before the tsunami struck, trying to manually close a floodgate that would not close mechanically.

Since the disaster, local volunteer fighters have shown symptoms of what is known as critical incident stress.

And some are reportedly suffering from survivor’s guilt after other volunteers died in the disaster. Others are said to feel they can no longer work as volunteer firefighters due to strong fears of tsunami.

The agency feared that unless the volunteers receive counseling, they may develop PTSD.

The experts will inquire about such things as sleeping problems, and introduce the volunteers to medical institutions specializing in their problems if necessary.

An official of the agency’s Disaster Management Division said: “This disaster is unprecedented in terms of the large number of local volunteer firefighters affected.

“It [counseling] is necessary because they were exposed to so much danger.”

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