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The Four Phases of Disaster Reactions

Bruce Rodgers

Studies of disasters have led to a description of four distinct phases that can be anticipated in any reaction to a major stress situation. These are warning, impact, immediate reaction, and delayed response (American Psychiatric Association 1964). Understanding of these four phases will enable police officers to effectively apply those principles and techniques of psychological first aid that we will describe later.

The Warning Period

Warning of an impending disaster is desirable. However, this warning might have a destructive or disorganizing effect on individual behavior. While some people function at a high level of effectiveness in the face of danger, others may respond to a warning signal as if a disaster had already occurred, becoming completely helpless.

This latter group usually consists of two types of people: those who have experienced a previous or similar disaster in which they were helpless and for whom the warning signal rekindles earlier helpless feelings; and those who will always be helpless in the face of any danger or threat. These people are susceptible to panic and must not be left to their own devices or they will communicate their panic to others.

The Impact Period

When disaster strikes, people will experience many frightening feelings. Although patterns of behavior have been well established, the initial impact will almost always be stunned inactivity. It has generally been shown that for about the first fifteen minutes, no one will be able to act effectively. Approximately fifteen minutes after a disaster has occurred, about 25 percent of the people will be able to resume effective behavior; and within one hour, another 60 percent will be capable of effective functioning. Dr. Jeffrey Mitchell ( 1986a), an expert on the psychological aspects of disaster situations, states that about 50 percent of any population involved in a major event is “adequately functioning.” He gives no time limits, so it appears that his figures and ours are not too dissimilar. Most of the remaining 15 percent will take several hours to several weeks before they will be able to function effectively. A few may never recover.

Immediate Reaction after Impact

The period immediately following a disaster or stress situation is critical because this is when the ineffective behavior of survivors and rescue workers is most costly. In contrast, effective behavior can save lives, relieve suffering, and decrease confusion.

Period of Delayed Response

When the community or the person is no longer in immediate danger, the situation can be evaluated and action taken to meet needs. However, although the immediate danger is over, some people may have a delayed reaction. Persons who were observed to be functioning effectively immediately after the disaster may no longer be doing so. Instead, they now may demonstrate signs of emotional disturbance, including anxiety or depression. Therefore, some people may require continued observation to ensure that they do not have a delayed reaction to a disaster.

This article is an excerpt from Psychological Aspects of Police Work: An Officer’s Guide to Street Psychology by former police officer and federal agent, Bruce A. Rodgers, PhD.

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