Getting Better at Mass Fatality Management: The Expanding Role of the Disaster Chaplain


First of all, mass murder is all about 'body count'. As each anticipated attack on soft targets---schools, theatres, churches, etc.---the shooter/bomber seeks to kill and maim as many persons as possible in the shortest amount of time. It's a perversion of an idea of power. It makes us question our safety.

Secondly, responding to these criminal events has many similarities to responding to catastrophic disasters. Each may have numerous casualties--- from the dead and critically injured, the walking wounded, the traumatization of those who respond to these events---both the trained professional (police, firefighters, EMT's) to those who are 'in the vicinity', and those who are deployed or self-deployed.

Finally, not everyone who responds to human-caused and natural disasters is there to help the victims, survivors, and their loved ones. Not everyone is invited or has the necessary training or needed skills. Along with the disaster trained professionals and support agencies, there are numerous entrepreneurs and predators blending in during the initial chaos with the emergency responders. Board certified chaplains, both medical center based and police and fire chaplains, have significant clinical and crisis training. Working as part of a highly trained team, with full knowledge of their spiritual care role, chaplains are essential elements helping to assess and re-assess immediate needs, and advocating for safe space and protection of the survivors and their loved ones after such an unanticipated, traumatic disaster incident. Some provide essential support to the emergency responders. Some may actually know persons dead or critically injured.

There are significant and valuable lessons learned since the federal building bombing in Oklahoma City and the September 11th attacks on America. Much wisdom gleaned from after action reports about Hurricane Katrina and Virginia Teach, Aurora, Newtown, Oregon, Charleston and, now, San Bernardino.

Some of these include:

1) The primary needs, of disaster survivors and their loved ones, are information and reassurance. Is the event over? Am I safe? Will there be a secondary event to maximize casualties and terror? Are my loved ones safe? Are my dogs okay? My cat? Notice how quickly municipalities put out a toll-free number for family members to call for information on where to go to be reunited (or not) with survivors. Will I be protected from those who have agendas that do not respect who I was before the disaster?

2) Never compare disasters. Each disaster is unique and is local---whether Paris or San Bernardino---do not compare. "Paris was bigger and more important because more people died", for example, comparisons are not helpful, and, may compound the injury of those enduring profound, unanticipated grief.

3) Direct contact with surviving loved ones should be severely limited. A Reunification Center now is routinely set up after an event, followed by a Family Assistance Center in the days afterwards to provide recovery resources and trusted relief organization.

Everyone who seeks to respond to a mass fatality incident should be screened in advance by those faith-based and humanitarian agencies seeking to provide pastoral care and counseling.

No individual or organization should benefit from his or her response to catastrophic, mass fatality events. That includes chaplains and local clergy. A community and a nation that has just undergone such a devastating loss of life, compounded with the murder of young people, men and women many with promising futures, those who have devoted their lives to public health and safety, parents with young children, are extremely vulnerable and are numb. Board certified chaplains know how to help, how to process the meaning of the event for those who survived and remain, as well as listen. One lets those impacted talk and share their feelings. Many will use the language of the divine, religious language, and mental health counselors need to be available as part of the family disaster assistance.

Prayer may stop the listening. Prayer may stop the conversation. Many may have harbored fears of a mentally ill young shooter in their community, but may not have thought that in such a big country it now has happened to them. If prayer is requested, ask what one would like to pray for....don't simply assume that you know what the other person is thinking.

Having a big heart, sense of mission, or a divine-calling, is not sufficient to be considered for immediate service in the chaotic arena of disaster. A sample-screening question may be extremely simple: Why do you want to go? To respond? Or, do you know why they attacked this person, this organization? You may be surprised at some of the answers. "They were all sinners" is not an acceptable answer. It may be true, but how is that information going to help now? Are you saying they deserved to be shot, deserved to die?

Compounding recent mass fatality management, particularly domestic and international terrorism, is the inclusion of women and children as 'fair targets' by those who seek to maximize harm, impact, and coverage. Children at an island summer camp in Norway or first graders in Connecticut and Scotland; mass murder is spiritual injury on an undreamt scale. Going to the movies or the mall, attending church or temple or mosque, just going to school, or getting on a plane, should not be a daily act of faith or prelude to death.

Managing the staggering influx of volunteers and organizations to mass fatality events has also greatly improved due to the work of groups like the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters (NVOAD), professional chaplaincy groups, faith-based disaster groups, military, police and fire chaplains. Immediately after a disaster, within the first 72-hours, care resources arrive to support local care providers who may be exhausted and need precious relief and opportunities to return to care for their own families. Many have specific training like disaster childcare, feeding and sheltering if necessary, legitimate counselors, and how to best provide ethical care and support.

After the horrendous attacks of September 11th and so many other mass fatality incidents, from federal, state, to local, from public and private partnerships, from community-wide preparation and rehearsals, chaplains now know about the Incident Command System---who is in charge and where to quickly set up and receive trusted information.

Disaster preparedness from schools which immediately go into lock down, or hospitals all hands on deck codes, to evacuation routes and shelters of last resort, the art and science of mass fatality management has improved immensely. It's just been needed so many times.

That knowledge should lessen anxiety, that message should build individual and community resilience and combat fear. Our leaders quickly know the importance of conveying information and messaging to a traumatized community and nation glued to their televisions and social media, that shares factual information and any future risks.

Finally, those critically injured are protected through a patient's right to privacy, the non-disclosure of any patient information by medical centers where they have been transported.

After family members and loved ones have been notified and protected, if possible, by trusted relatives, friends, or neighbors, we need to know and say their names. We need to tell their stories and convey the senseless, criminal loss of husbands and wives, partners, fathers and mothers, children and friends who survive. We do not gain by covering the criminal or their acts so frequently in our media and continuously publicizing their crimes. Yes, we're curious to know why? And who? But, who benefits by the repeated recitation of the crime? Advertisers? Dubious assistance funds? We need to minimize our exposure to extremist ideology that would tear us down. Say their names. Publish their pictures and tell their stories.

Let's remember:

Robert Adams, Isaac Amanios, Bennetta Betbadal, Harry Bowman, Sierra Clayborn, Juan Espinoza, Aurora Godoy, Shannon Johnson, Larry Daniel Kaufman, Damian Meins, Tin Nguyen, Nicholas Thalasinos, Yvette Velasco and Michael Wetzel.