All respondents played a substantial role in VA’s activities following the respective disasters. However, only 12 participants indicated the VAMC they supported collaborated with non-VA partners during the event in question. Included disasters ranged from widespread to geographically contained; weather-related to acts of violence; and direct impact on VA facilities ranged from none to significant. Though not all respondents described intensive engagement with the community following the event, all respondents described the importance of integrating into local, established response activities. This translated into involvement in community-wide drills and planning committees and following the lead of local incident command. Respondents indicated one of the areas where the VA could provide support to the community was in disaster behavioral health relief operations.
Activities described by respondents were often centered around tasks where the VA could reduce the caseload of other community agencies by identifying Veterans obtaining services in the community and meeting their needs regardless if they were previously enrolled in VA benefits. One key activity described by several respondents included outreach into local shelters. As one respondent explained, VA staff at shelters “[distribute] fliers [that] outline that our counselors are experts in trauma, loss, and in readjustment. They also provide referrals to Veterans for a variety of services, including housing and employment. We also offered free counseling for all community members impacted.”
Identifying where shelters were established and receiving authorization to deploy VA assets to those locations required coordination with local authorities. Multiple respondents mentioned connecting with emergency management running relief efforts to describe available VA resources and detail the services available to both Veterans and the community at large. In some of the events explored in this study, the non-VA authorities were unaware of what the VA could offer while others had pre-existing relationships that allowed for more transparent understanding of how the VA could support response efforts. One respondent went on to describe how the disaster that impacted their VAMC led to additional outreach to local jurisdictions and shelter coordinating agencies (e.g., the American Red Cross) to build relationships and understanding specifically of the behavioral health services the VA could deploy, if needed and approved.
Respondents noted there were specific benefits to conducting outreach in locations where other agencies provided services to the people impacted such as shelters and Local Assistance Centers. They noted that VA staff could more easily reach Veterans to enroll them, if eligible, into VA services and offer care to those who usually used non-VA health and mental health facilities, thereby supporting local agencies by reducing potential patient loads elsewhere. Additionally, by positioning resources at a central location, VA could more readily offer community members services as an extension of their work with Veterans. One specific resource identified as useful for Veteran and community support was Mobile Vet Centers, which have the primary goal of providing social work and mental health services to Veterans. In cases where respondents mentioned this resource, they underscored that non-Veteran community members who requested services in the first days after the disaster were never turned away.
Three community profiles
Three disaster events described by respondents distinctly highlighted cases where the VA was deeply involved in the local community’s disaster behavioral health response. Each event showed VA’s integration into local response structures was facilitated by pre-existing emergency management and clinical relationships, as well as prioritization from VA leadership to engage in humanitarian missions to support the community.
Telehealth in Tinian, Mariana Islands
Prior to Super Typhoon Yutu impacting the Mariana Islands, the VA Pacific Island Healthcare System (VAPIHC) established tele-mental health services on the island of Tinian. These services were located at a non-VA owned healthcare clinic using pre-positioned VA telemedicine equipment and coordinated with the clinic director and staff. Typhoon Yutu devastated the island and led to many Tinian healthcare clinic employees losing their homes. The clinic with VA tele-mental health equipment became a temporary housing site for staff as it was undamaged by the storm. The clinic director realized that in addition to sheltering needs, employees also experienced significant trauma. However, there were limited mental health resources on the island. Once VA became aware of the need, it worked with other federal agencies to manage the logistics of implementing services that took advantage of pre-positioned VA resources.
“… it was a relationship that we had with [the US Department of Health and Human Services] (HHS) and a relationship that we had with the folks on Guam and Saipan … we have a lot of relationships going on. So, we knew that we had that telehealth equipment. We also knew that Tinian was … hit pretty hard. And that there was a lot of grief. And so I can’t say how it totally emerged, but there’s so many relationships and there’s so much communication during an emergency.”
Respondents reported it was initially challenging to identify whether VA could provide mental health services in the community and how the services would be funded. Staff at all levels of the VA worked with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and HHS to get official authorization as well as receive federal funding for VAPIHC to provide time limited tele-mental health interventions to clinic staff on Tinian. VAPIHC Tele-mental Health Hub coordinated with the local clinic director to inform employees about available services and utilized technology onsite to provide weekly support groups for 13 health center employees.
Director’s 50 in Orlando, Florida and the pulse nightclub shooting
The Orlando VA Healthcare System (OVAHCS) houses a unique emergency response team “The Director’s 50.” Made up of multi-disciplinary VA healthcare workers, including mental health professionals (i.e. psychologists, psychiatrists, mental health nurses), the Director’s 50 can deploy a team of up to 50 volunteers within 2 hours to areas throughout the region when authorized by the Orlando VAMC Director. As described by one respondent, the mission of the team is,
“to provide an immediate gap fill to an emergency before VA can get its assets organized and into a formal support and response role. So the team is multi-disciplinary and multi-functional with its capabilities, so that it can immediately address the needs of the emergency response until VA can formalize how it’s going to provide their support to the community.”
The Director’s 50 includes interdisciplinary clinical and service support training for all members such as triage and treatment services, mental health intervention, peer counseling, and psychological support to trauma. Through participation in community-wide exercises and drills, the Director’s 50 has built versatile capabilities and strong relationships with local emergency management agencies and area hospitals.
In response to the Pulse Nightclub Shooting, VA Central Office requested OVAHCS to deploy the Director’s 50 to provide VA resources and support the community’s response. The team activated their mass notification system to alert their nearly 100 volunteer members and quickly assembled an initial response team of about 15 clinical, mental health, and support professionals within 1 hour. Respondents noted having internal approval can speed up the process of deploying teams. In general, to distribute VA resources into the community, a federal disaster declaration is required to initiate the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act or where the HHS Secretary has activated the National Disaster Medical System, both of which grant VA the ability to provide assistance. Therefore, respondents noted a need to balance expectations of leadership to help quickly, while also ensuring VA resources were legally allowed to be used in the response.
One thing that facilitated OVAHCS’s integration into the local response system was a pre-existing relationship with the City of Orlando’s Office of Emergency Management and the Central Florida Medical Disaster Coalition, which facilitated the Director’s 50 integration into the city’s response and allowed them to report to the victim reunification center. The team was tasked.
“to be the initial communication to the family members for those victims that actually passed away. So, 49 victims, our team was assigned to go ahead and be the initial contact to let them know that their loved ones had passed, and to begin the coordination for services, grief counseling and victim advocacy, you know, to help them prepare the initial points of piecing together their lives after being notified of such tragic events.”
Accordingly, the initial multi-disciplinary team narrowed its focus to mainly members with mental health expertise. Over the next 2 weeks, the team worked with the community, helping to manage vigils and gatherings for the public, and continuing grief counseling and mental health support for the whole community, including providing peer behavioral health support to municipal first responders. Since this act of violence targeted people who were Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Queer (LGBTQ) frequenting Pulse Nightclub, not only were relatives of victims or survivors from inside the building affected, but the entire LGBTQ community felt the traumatic impact of the shooting. One respondent described the importance of providing mental health support from multiple community agencies when a disaster of this magnitude occurs,
“And they [the people who were at the shooting] truly needed a place, and this is why we were there for greater than just the 24-48 hours of initially identifying the people who was killed during the shooting, you had everyone that was inside of the club who were seeking a place where they could go and receive the care and support that they needed as well. And obviously, you know, this is something that is an endemic issue with healthcare as a whole, is the access to mental health counseling and services. So VA, as well as some other partnering mental health organizations were able to supply that need right there at the site where they were doing victim notification or victim reunification and family support. We were able to do that.”
One respondent noted a key point to remember about the Director’s 50, “they are all volunteers...And these people will go—you know, 24 hours a day, day in and day out, to execute that mission. And we have to think about team resiliency.” This included caring for team member’s well-being by rotating staff and providing and attending to the mental heath of one another. As described by one respondent,
“Because when it was all said and done, the team was very affected by what they had to do. You know, just imagine hearing—you know, overwhelming grief for every one of the 49 victims’ families that would show up. And the team took that burden on … and I will tell you, to this day, it still affects the people who went and supported that mission. And they really—those who supported that mission have a greater reverence for what we do now, as a team. So you’d never have to ask them to—whether they are going to support anything related to the Director’s 50. That comradery that’s there, they won’t let their own kind of—go into the bowels of despair like that, alone.”
Integrating into community response in Las Vegas, Nevada after the route 91 harvest festival shooting
As a large city with many national and international visitors, respondents described Las Vegas as having a very centralized emergency response structure. Relationships between VA Southern Nevada HCS (VASNHCS) and local response agencies and area hospitals were described as “tightknit” with great working relationships where organizations plan and prepare for disasters together. As one respondent put it,
“what I do know is my community. I know my community partners. I know what they have, what they don’t have, they know what I have, what I don’t have. And that’s what makes us so resilient. That’s community.”
Although located too far away from the Las Vegas Strip to actively receive injured victims when the shooting occurred at the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival, VASNHCS activated its Hospital Incident Command System so it could actively participate in the community’s response and organize efforts. A Multi-Agency Coordination Center (MACC) organized the response activities, and respondents underscored the value of both pre-existing relationships and an understanding of the county’s emergency response structure. As explained by a respondent,
“You can’t wait for your community to ask you. You have to be on the forefront and know what they need. And you only do that by knowing your community. You know, I spent probably as much time in my community as I do in my medical center. A lot of the time, it’s my own time, but again, it builds that relationship that when they’re updating their mass casualty plan, one of the people they’re calling is [me].”
This previous collaboration, as well as being present at the MACC, allowed VASNHCS to identify community needs that it could address.
As news of the shooting spread, VA leadership tasked VASNHCS with deploying staff into the community. However, it was challenging to balance the push from VA to deploy with continuing to respect established local coordination structures. VASNHCS maintained a presence within the Medical Area Surge Command of the MACC to offer resources and expertise, waiting for requests, instead of directly deploying assets outside of the established system.
In the immediate response, VASNHCS assisted with managing fatalities. It offered morgue space to the county and initiated the mass fatality plan to increase morgue capacity. This provided the county and partner hospitals space for victims until they could be processed, and families could claim them. Additionally, VASNHC offered a Psychological First Aid (PFA) team.
Initially, VASNHCS deployed their PFA team to the community’s family reunification center. The team was composed of social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, administrators (as support staff), canteen services (for water and snacks to sustain clients and staff), and the medical center’s Chief of Staff. As the situation evolved, the MACC received requests from local agencies for psychological assistance and VASNHCS transitioned to directly integrating into area hospitals.
Three Las Vegas hospitals received the bulk of the injured or dead and recognized the need for psychological interventions with their staff. Due to their close relationships with other hospitals, one respondent explained that they were familiar with the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) at these hospitals. The respondent knew it would take time for the EAP to arrive onsite and they would most likely focus on clinical staff involved in directly treating the injured. Therefore, VASNHCS developed a three-pronged approach to complement EAP services at the receiving hospitals. Firstly, the PFA team provided what one respondent called “trauma therapy” to hospital staff, regardless whether they worked the night of the shooting. The assistance extended beyond clinical staff to non-clinical departments, such as environmental services/housekeeping, whose staff were also impacted through their response roles.
Respondents reported one of the reasons their response in the hospitals was so successful was that the team was multidisciplinary, allowing staff from different departments to talk to people in similar positions, which was valued by the recipients.
“So for example, we have a nurse that’s trained in trauma, psychological first aid. So they want the nurses at [the hospital with a patient surge], they want to talk to our team. They were still processing. But when we brought our nurse into the ward, they were more than willing to open up to her, because she was one of them. She was part of their tribe. So we try to match our tribe to their tribe, and that’s why we were successful.”
Secondly, the VASNHCS team worked with victims of the shooting, providing PFA and social work services. Thirdly, they integrated with family members of patients at the hospitals and provided them items that they did not otherwise have because they were visitors to Las Vegas. Examples included coordinating free transportation to and from hospitals and hotels, connecting them to local mortuary services, and providing information about how to access services when they returned home.
The PFA team ran for 24 h a day, for 7 days in those three impacted hospitals. To balance VA patient care with the community response mission, VASNHCS staff volunteered shifts outside of their normal work hours. One respondent described the overwhelming desire of VA staff to help their community.
“And while it didn’t impact our staff or our clinics, or our patients, it impacted our community. I think another thing that still amazes me to this day, was the outpour of our staff and what I mean by that is they were coming out of the woodwork to support. We had more volunteers working an eight-hour shift and then coming in [to volunteer] at five o’clock or four o’clock and working to midnight to two in the morning and not go home until four or five in the morning, and then go to work the next day, because we didn’t want to impact our patient care. And they were doing this out of their—you know, because they care. They care about the community, they care about the event, they care about the people. And then at the end of the day, you know, we had more volunteers than we had placements, because we did not want to overwhelm the health systems with all of these VA personnel.”
However, with new volunteers each shift, a key lesson learned was to have a daily team debrief. As people changed daily, a debrief provided key information and a running tally of support being provided to save time and avoid reinventing the wheel identifying contacts or systems already developed.
Another lesson was that preparedness requires ongoing maintenance. The importance of ongoing preparedness was underscored when VASNHCS realized that leading up to the shooting, they had reduced their focus on PFA training. As described by one respondent, “We noticed that we need that continuous [psychological first aid] training, that we need continuous exercising, and it’s not an easy fit, to send a bunch of people to someone else’s hospital or an area to do that kind of service.” They also realized the first wave of personnel went into community hospitals without basic supplies they needed to provide services, including basic items such as pens, PFA guides, and informational brochures.
Three months following the shooting, the VASNHCS Emergency Manager, working with the Chief of Social Work hosted a lunch for staff who volunteered to thank them for their involvement. During that event, they realized volunteers were not only impacted by the event itself, but also by their time providing support in the community. They therefore created a forum to again gather staff who had deployed at the 6 month and 9 month marks to eat and talk about the impact of the event on the healthcare system and themselves. On the 1 year anniversary, management had a special event for the volunteers,
“we actually had people from the community that we supported coming in and they broke bread with our team and what they did was, they talked about what the impact of the VA Southern Nevada Healthcare System was going into that event, and how we helped them bridge the gap [of mental health support] that was crucial at that time, and how appreciative they were to our cause and our Clark County Office of Emergency Management gave all our staff that responded T-shirts that said Vegas Strong, because they wanted them to know that we—they appreciated the work that we did for them to support our community.”