Committee Reports

General Guidance for Mass Disaster Response Team Members

Most mass disasters occur suddenly and cause great panic, fear and confusion. It is therefore imperative that the “Response Team” be able to be assembled quickly and that all relevant available information be reliably and continually communicated to the Response Team Leader.

In our own experience, the Mayor’s Emergency Management Team and various law enforcement officials not only provided the most current available information but also had a sense of what information was being sought by the victims’ families and provided our team with expeditious security clearances and introductions to other volunteer members and victims’ relatives.

The nature of a particular mass disaster will dictate the nature of the expertise required.

The following thoughts and guidelines have been assembled as a result of our committee’s actual experience assisting the families of TWA Flight 800 victims. Much of our hands-on experience with this tragic event would apply to and benefit members of any mass disaster Response Team.

An attorney who is contacted to be part of a Response Team should be mindful of the chaotic and confusing atmosphere that will undoubtedly prevail at the “eye of the storm”.

The ability of the various Response Team members to quickly assemble, assess the nature of the particular disaster and to objectively project the immediate legal and related needs of the core group of victims the Response Team seeks to assist will determine the effectiveness of the Response Team’s efforts.

While the primary focus of its efforts will be to render prompt legal assistance to disaster victims and their families the Response Team will also be able to act as a liaison between victims and other legal services and social services organizations.

Upon being called upon to respond to a mass disaster a “brainstorming” organizational meeting among Response Team members will provide focus and provide a more coordinated effort once the Response Team arrives at the particular disaster site.

The volunteer attorney should approach his/her mission with an open mind – the nature of the tragedy will determine the particular legal services required. Unlike the usual attorney-client relationship, in a disaster situation parties have been thrown together and a special effort must be made to quickly develop credibility and a rapport with the victims in order to be able to gain the trust and confidence of those being offered assistance.

The number and variety of individual legal concerns posed to Response Team members in connection with TWA 800 crash on an individual basis made it apparent that the victims’ families appreciated and benefitted from the personal attention and advice provided by our Response Team. As such, to the extent feasible, given concerns regarding time, space and ethical issues, this personalized method and approach is highly recommended to future Response Teams as a supplement to group announcements and briefings.

The assemblage of professional workers (social workers, grief counselors, foreign consular officials, law enforcement personnel and others) provided a strong psychological and emotional cushion for those grieving untold losses and suffering.

Response Team Members should be mindful of the fact that (as was the case with TWA 800 victims) many of those affected by a mass disaster will be from other parts of the country and world. It takes a special effort to comfort and provide aid to victims and their loved ones who may not even speak English and who are strangers in a highly charged and emotional environment. Thus, the Response Team itself must have access to a whole spectrum of agencies and organizations that can be readily called upon to render the necessary assistance and coordination (translations, temporary housing, transportation, clergy, etc.).

It is equally important that potential Response Team members can be assembled quickly and have contact with each other through some type of a Central Registry System.

It is important to remember that while any Response Team is intended to provide both general and specific information to disaster victims and their families, it is equally important to refrain from being overly specific and technical during what is obviously an emotionally chaotic time. Therefore, factually correct information and referrals to other sources of assistance are equally important components of the services which Response Team members should be encouraged to consider when responding to a mass disaster.