Characteristics of Effective Disaster Family Assistance Team Members

Characteristics of Effective Disaster Family Assistance Team Members

Dr. Grady P. Bray, PHD – GoCrisis Senior Associate

During more than 40 disaster responses, the characteristics of effective family support team members became surprisingly consistent.  The same characteristics transcended nationality, sex, religion and culture. The intent in identifying and discussing these characteristics is two-fold:

  1. Confirmation and reassurance for those identifying similar traits within themselves and,
  2. Provide clear goals for those trying to improve themselves and become more effective as disaster response team members.

While these characteristics may initially appear innate, a part of your personality and genetic heritage since birth, most are acquired traits which can be taught, practiced, and incorporated into a person’s skills repertoire.


This may seem surprisingly simple, but the primary activity of family support responders is to help families clarify their needs.  Much of this work pertains to the logistical needs of the families.  In order to accomplish this, work the emphasis must remain on the family.  It is not a time for the responder to share their similar experiences nor their feelings.  If the focus remains on the families and their needs, there is minimal danger that the responder will inadvertently harm the family through the sharing of personal ideas, suggestions, problem-solving, values or guidance.

The strategy to maximizing support to the family is for the responder to minimize their comments and, instead, reframe the families’ words when appropriate to provide feedback to the family.  This clarifies for the family that they are being heard and the intended message has been communicated.


More than 70% of what humans communicate is non-verbal, without words.  Facial expressions, hand movements and body posture contribute to the information shared with others.  Whether this improves the understanding of messages or detracts from them is critical during a time of crisis.  Family assistance and emergency responders interact with families during an extremely difficult period of their lives.  Agreement between the spoken words and non-verbal messages is essential for families to fully understand the desired messages prepared for them.

Non-verbal communication is a skill which can be acquired through education, training, and practice.  For cross-cultural work this is especially important.


During a crisis, immediate and short-term memories are not created as usual.  Responders often get frustrated because families seem to require frequent reminders of the same information.  It is helpful to document key information provided by or to families using a physical pad or electronic media.  It is critical to be aware of confidentiality and never record information which can be seen by others or embarrass the family.  When no longer needed, paper should be cross-shredded and burned while electronic information should be deleted including cloud or other back-up options.

The creation of a daily family schedule has often been identified by families as particularly helpful.  Families do not forget much of the information presented to them, they simply do not create the memory units.  Filling those gaps for them in a non-threatening way saves them embarrassment and increases the effectiveness of their family support experience.


Kindness includes the ability to be considerate, generous, and friendly.  Generosity does not mean financially but refers to a willingness to be present when needed, to give of one’s time.     Supporting families in crisis is a one-way relationship.  Responders should not abuse families by expecting them to reciprocate kindness, friendship, or generosity. Not all families are nice.  Some are frustrating and difficult.  Even so, effective responders can work with difficult families because they understand the nature of their relationship with the family.  It is not mutual, rather solely focused on the family and their needs.


Many disaster and crisis responders have ideas about how a response should evolve.  They have ideas which they believe would make the response more effective or efficient.  Such thoughts are not unusual given the nature of people attracted to emergency, crisis and disaster response.  Responders are typically action oriented and have higher than usual leadership qualities.  Effective responders can focus their desire to lead on the tasks and functions appropriate to their position in the response.  They understand the deployment hierarchy and the need to operate within the organizational structure.

For disaster response, leadership is desired, but “follow-ship” is critical.


One of the essential traits of effective responders is the ability to say, “No”.  Everyone wants to deploy if they choose to attend trainings and prepare themselves for deployment.  One of the more difficult decisions occurs when you are asked if you can deploy, and you know you are not healthy enough to deploy.  To deploy when you are not physically fit not only places you in danger but can affect all those with whom you come in contact. During one family assistance operation, a team member had initial symptoms of the flu but did not report them when called to deploy because he wanted so desperate to go.  His decision resulted in more than 20 of his fellow team members becoming ill with the flu. To deploy it is essential to maintain the highest possible level of health and fitness. Deployments are physically taxing with long days and often emotionally exhausting work.


The unknown is frightening.  Deployments often require travel to unknow areas, cultures, foods, and people.  Family support and disaster responders often find themselves confronting their fears and prejudices.  Being courageous does not mean abandoning reasoning nor ignoring the essential practice of “situational awareness”.  Bravery is making an informed decision in the face of real or perceived danger.

During one large scale, terrorism related deployment, more than 100 family support workers were aiding affected family members.  On the third day of the deployment the leadership team was informed that a secondary attack was highly probable on the following day. The attack was to be an anthrax dispersal using stolen fogging machines.  The informing agencies encouraged evacuation of all personnel.

At the evening briefing, team members were provided the information and informed that transportation had been arranged. Everyone had two hours to pack before the arrival of the buses.  Everyone who remained had to be “fit tested” for respirators and protective gear.  Men would need to shave their beards and moustaches.  Representatives from the fire department health and safety team would provide the training and assessment.  The biohazard equipment was available on one side of the room.

After I finished the briefing the room was filled with worried comments from one team member to another.  Suddenly the room became quiet as a woman stood near the center of the room.  In a gentle voice she said, “Thank you for the buses coming to evacuate us but when the doors open in the morning, I will be waiting for my family.”  She slowly worked her way between the chairs and headed over to be fitted for her protective gear.  As she was moving, another team member said, “I will be here for my family too.”  Quickly the room filled with people affirming their choices to greet their families the next morning.  Not one person chose to leave that night.  The next morning, after a long night of learning to “doff and don” their protective gear, team members met their returning families at the family assistance center.  I was never prouder of a group of people than on that night when they displayed their courage and commitment to the families they served.


These characteristics have emerged during forty years of research, training, and deployments.  New family assistance team members join a worldwide cadre of those dedicated to assisting families with the highest levels of compassion and professionalism.  They do this knowing that it is often through our service to others that we discover the meaning of our own lives.

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