Disaster response can range from COVID-19 testing facilities to hurricane relief

When first responders set out on disaster response in the aftermath of natural disasters — or to treat and triage COVID-19 patients — days grow long and exhaustion runs deep.

The key is knowing how to pick the right deployments, says Derek Kaucher, BS, MA Instructor, CCEMTP, with Distance CME.

Over his career, Kaucher has landed about 10 deployments, both federal and local. Some deployments pay more than others, but there’s no standard pay rate.

Deployments can offer lucrative opportunities, however, compared to the typical pay first responders receive at home.

“Most of the time it’s a good bit of change. But there are deployments that are not paid as well, so you must know what you are getting into.”

Kaucher just returned from a 25-day stint in Atlanta, on a federal project where he worked as a safety officer at an independent treatment facility for COVID-19 patients. Authorities had set up the stand-alone facility inside a convention center where patients recovered after their hospital discharge.

“They were very strict on who came in. Patients could not have an insulin drip nor could they be on ventilators. They were on the downhill side of recovery but still shedding virus.”

While projects like these can contribute to supplemental income, it’s more than money that keeps him on the lookout for disaster response deployments. Working with top notch people inspires him to continue this line of work — despite the risk of exposure to COVID-19.

“I really enjoy getting to know the people I will be working with because we’re like a big family,” he said.If you are going on deployment, you’re among the all-stars. I treat it like they are picking an elite team of first responders.”

Working in new settings

The key to working with new people in an unfamiliar and stressful environment requires taking some time to learn about the individual strengths and weaknesses of your peers and colleagues, Kaucher said.

“When you understand the people in your group and understand their background, it allows the team to mesh better… most of us can improvise and adapt and it’s easier when we know each other’s background.”

Let’s say one of your teammates has fantastic skills as a respiratory therapist — and another can handle difficult intubations with relative ease. By understanding each person’s strengths, Kaucher knows precisely who to call upon in those critical moments.

Since the environment constantly changes during a disaster response, it’s important to adapt to those changes. Don’t rely too heavily on the job description. Instead think of it as a guide because daily tasks are often assigned on the fly. Even with the best planning, you cannot plan for everything, so it’s helpful to be flexible.

Watch out for sleep deprivation

Research tells us that adequate sleep is one of the best ways to restore resilience and manage stress.

Sleep deprivation correlates with impaired cognitive functions like mood, motivation and response times. Sleep studies indicate that humans require from 7.5 to 8.5 hours of sleep each night, based on Patient Safety Network, part of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. Getting too little sleep is also linked to burnout, which affects patient safety.

Even with the daily grind of 10-hour shifts, seven days a week, Kaucher said he enjoys his work. Still, long days of disaster response can get to him.

When asked if he felt burnout during the COVID-19 project, he said no, but recalled feeling sheer exhaustion. Since the entire state of Georgia was shut down, he found little relief in taking time off to decompress.

“If you take the day off, what are you going to do in a town that’s locked down?  What can you do to recharge? People who lived nearby could go home and have downtime… but if you are thousands of miles away — it takes a different toll.”

Working so many hours left it up to him to know his own limits and take breaks when needed. He emphasized that once fatigue sets in, that’s when a good day can go awry. Ask your supervisor for a break, he advised.

“Everyone’s exhaustion point is different. If we all try to be macho, that’s when we can get hurt or unintentionally hurt our partner, make mistakes or medical errors happen.”

Managing long days on disaster response

To manage exhaustion and stress Kaucher suggests prioritizing daily exercise and good eating habits.

“Any deployment will be a high stress situation, and you need that extra fuel to maintain your abilities,” Kaucher said. “If you don’t eat right or get exercise, it’s going to wear your body down quicker, so it’s hard for your body and brain to function properly.”

He also reminds us that alcohol before bed prevents REM sleep — something crucial to a body that needs rest and replenishment.

Looking for opportunities to help with disaster response?

FEMA is a good resource where you can learn more about various on-call positions. Also look at USAJobs.gov.

Learn more about the skills you’ll need on disaster response deployments with our CCTR-L10 course and free COVID-19 resources page.