Personnel deployed in support of Department of Health and Human Services’

Personnel deployed in support of Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) federal response operations may encounter multiple types and severity of stressors and/or psychological trauma in the performance of their assigned duties. Due to the severity and anticipatory nature of these repeated exposures, disaster/emergency responders experience compassion fatigue, burnout, primary and secondary post-traumatic stress, depression and anxiety as well as substance abuse.
In an effort to mitigate the effect of these stressors and trauma, current HHS policy directs leadership to oversee, monitor and facilitate behavioral health force protection through training and education about stress, stress mitigation and management, disaster behavioral health, behavioral health promotion measures, and communication. This process is further enabled by two behavioral/mental health professionals assigned to the response operations team according to federal response operations policy. These personnel are designated as the Behavioral Health Safety Officer (BHSO) and the Behavioral Health Liaison Officer (BHLNO); each responsible to maintain oversight for the mental/behavioral health for responder and/or disaster victim populations as well as communicating—up and down the chain-of-command—the current cumulative mental health picture, actions taken and support requirements.
However, planning and policy is only as useful as they are well-implemented; and feedback following the federal response operations to the Boston Bombing, Sandy Hook and Super Storm Sandy indicated systemic shortfalls. To determine a new course of action, the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response – Division for At-Risk, Behavioral Health and Community Resilience (ASPR/ABC) sought information regarding real-world response operations’ behavioral health force protection effectiveness, best practices and areas for improvement.
Data from subject matter expert interviews and literature reviews combined to render twelve evidence-informed recommendations—centered on the effect leadership has on mental/behavioral health and the most effective, cost-efficient, and trainable interventions to promote resilience—to guide draft policy updates, on behalf of ASPR/ABC, aimed at enhancing the structure and efficacy of HHS disaster behavioral health force protection. These updates would ultimately ensure better compliance and accountability, generally improved health and well-being, and higher resilience in federal responders. In the face of ever-increasing weather event frequency and severity, together with recent terrorist activity and threats, it is especially important to protect their physical, mental and behavioral health, ultimately, to maintain readiness within the disaster response operations sphere.