COMMENTARY

An Integrated Response to Surfside: Lessons Learned

Cassondra Feldman, PsyD, Col. Elad Edri, MA , and Jennifer Davidtz, PhD

October 20, 2021

The catastrophic collapse of the Surfside, Fla., Champlain Towers South left ambiguous loss, trauma, grief, and other psychiatric and psychological sequelae in its wake.

Now that a few months have passed since the tragedy, which took the lives of 98 residents, it is helpful to examine the psychiatric and psychological support efforts that emerged.

We can think of those support efforts as operating on two tracks: one was pursued by mental health professionals representing numerous organizations; the other was pursued by local, regional, and international first responders – specifically, by Israeli Defense Force (IDF) members who came to our community at the request of Surfside families.

Those efforts were guided by existing frameworks for crisis response designed to provide containment amid the naturally disorganizing effects of the trauma and ambiguous loss. In retrospect, it was clear that the mechanisms by which those frameworks coalesced and functioned were more implicit and organically synchronous than explicitly coordinated and agreed upon. As the rescue and support efforts proceeded, and a unique "Surfside collapse community" formed; key themes emerged and revealed intrinsic links between the first-responder/search and rescue and psychological strategies.

In this article, we discuss relevant themes and parallels between the psychological intervention/strategies and the first-responder disaster response and the practical utility of implementing an integrated strategy. Our hope is that a better understanding of these strategies will help future therapists and responders who respond to crises.

Setting the Frame

The importance of setting a psychotherapeutic frame is indisputable regardless of theoretical orientation or therapeutic modality. Predictable, consistent conditions under which therapy takes place support a patient's capacity to tolerate the ambiguous and unpredictable aspects of the process. Those "rules of engagement" provide a structure where subjective experiences can be formulated, organized, understood, and integrated. Twice-daily briefs held in a centralized location (dubbed the Surfside "family center") paralleled this frame and served that same containing function by offering structure, order, and predictability amid the palpable chaos of ambiguous loss and traumatic grief. Those briefs provided key information on the status of the operation and described the rescue strategy. These were led by the Miami-Dade assistant fire chief and IDF colonel (E.E.), who presented a unified front and consistent presence.

It is essential that briefings such as these be coordinated (and unified) with clear expectations about ground rules, much like what is involved in therapeutic informed consent. In this context, rules included permissions related to documentation of meetings, information sharing, and rules of communication with the media in an effort to protect the vulnerable.

The centralized meeting location served as an important center of gravity and unified place of waiting and information receipt. It provided a dedicated space to meet with humanitarian aid organizations and government officials, and symbolized continuity, consistency, ease of information transmission, and a place where practical needs could be addressed. Meals, toiletries, and other supplies were provided to simplify and maintain daily routines. Those are otherwise unremarkable practices that seemed impossible to manage amid a crisis, yet can be inherently grounding and emotionally organizing when facing deep psychological fragmentation.

Meeting in person allowed the IDF to offer operational visuals to allow those affected to feel less helpless and cultivate a sense of purpose by being part of the strategy/mission. Their strategy included "population intelligence," which was aimed at both information gathering to practically facilitate the rescue/recovery process (for example, locating victims, property, and recreating a visual of how the building fell), and inspiring people to participate. This engagement helped many transition from a place of denial/repression to acknowledging loss/grief, and from a passive to active part of the effort, in a way that was safe and realistic – as opposed to going to the site and aiding themselves, as some had requested.

The Surfside tragedy: A call for healing the healers

Naturally, a central location made it possible to offer immediate psychological assistance and support. Clinicians responding to crisis should be carefully selected in light of the immense suffering, emotional vulnerability, and heightened reactivity of those affected. People were overwhelmed by deep sorrow, fear, anger, and uncertainty, vacillating between hope and despair, and mobilized by a desire to help. Those providing support need to be interpersonally skilled and able to regulate their own emotions. They must be able to formulate – in real time – an understanding of what is needed, and implement a strategic plan. Like first responders, it is also key for providers to be easily accessible and identifiable in uniform so that people in the grip of a survival response can easily identify and elicit support.

The Power of Strategy

The Israeli delegation and mental health approaches were aligned with respect to cultivating a team identity and keeping the team spirit elevated. The delegation's approach was to deemphasize rank during the mission in that everyone was responsible for anything that was needed and no task was below anyone's rank. The same was true for the mental health support response: Early interventions were focused on addressing practical needs – providing blankets, water, chargers, food, and a calming presence to counter the initial chaos. No task was too small, regardless of title or role. As more structure and order ensued, it was possible to offer more traditional crisis-related interventions aimed at grounding those affected.

Both teams worked to ensure 24-hour coverage, which was crucial given the need for consistency and continuity. Our commitment was to support the victims' families and survivors by fully embracing the chaos and the situational demands, offering attunement and support, and satisfying both basic and higher-level needs. We divided and conquered work, observed signals of need, offered immediate support where necessary, and coordinated longer-term care plans when possible. The importance of ongoing self-care, consultation, and debriefing while doing this work cannot be overstated. Time to address basic needs and the impact of vicarious trauma as a team must be built in.

Importance of Flexibility

This tragedy came with unique complexities and sensitivities that needed to be identified expediently and addressed with a concrete, comprehensive plan. This was true for both the rescue and psychological support efforts, and flexibility was key. There was nothing traditional about our work from a therapeutic perspective – we found quiet corners and empty offices, went for walks, met in lobbies, and checked in by phone. The interventions were brief.

Roles shifted often between aiding in addressing practical needs, advocating for victims and connecting them to appropriate resources, supporting the police in making death notifications, providing support and space for processing during and after briefings, and more.

Similarly, the rescue team constantly reevaluated their strategy because of what they discovered as they dismantled the collapsed building, in addition to managing external impacting factors (heat, rain, lightning, and the threat of the remaining structure falling).

Language Matters

The iteration of commitment to the families/victims/mission and to work speedily and efficiently was important for both rescuers and therapists. It was key during the briefings for the chief and colonel (E.E.) to share information in a manner that was professional, discreet, honest and explicit. Their willingness and ability to be vulnerable and to share their personal feelings as active rescuers humanized them. Their approach was matter of fact, yet warm, loving, and containing, all of which conveyed dignity and respect.

Word choice mattered, and the IDF's intentional choice to refer to recovered victims as "souls," rather than "bodies," conveyed their sensitivity to the intensity of anguish, depth of loss, and gravity of the situation. From a psychological perspective, the transition between "rescue" efforts signifying the potential saving of lives to "recovery" of bodies or remains was significant and demarcated a dramatic shift. The weeks-long efforts, once painfully slow, then felt too abrupt to process.

One extraordinary moment was the chief's response to the families' discomfort at the news of the switch from rescue to recovery. The families were anxious about losing the structure that the briefings provided and were apprehensive about the handoff from fire to the police department. With great compassion and attunement, he assured them that he would stay with them, and they together, as a family, would decide when to conclude the in-person briefings. The colonel (E.E.), too, provided assurance that neither procedure nor the urgency of the recovery would change. It was both heart-warming and containing that information related to the operation was shared in a clear manner, and that the thought process and rationale behind major decisions (e.g., demolishing the remaining building, decision to pause operations, switch from rescue to recovery) was shared. It was useful for the clinicians to be aware of this rationale in helping individuals metabolize the information and process the associated trauma and grief.

Unification Is Key

Surfside has left an indelible impact on us. We saw and experienced unity in many respects – clinicians from various backgrounds collaborating, families bonding and caring for one another, community support and solidarity, and the cooperation and coordination of the search and rescue teams. The diverse groups providing support came to feel like a family, and the importance of inter- and intrateam integration cannot be overstated. We were transformed both by our professional collaborations and authentic connections with those affected, and will forever cherish the experience, one another, the families, and the souls lost.

Feldman is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Miami. She is an adjunct professor in the college of psychology at Nova Southeastern University, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where she teaches clinical psychology doctoral students. She also serves on the board of directors of The Southeast Florida Association for Psychoanalytic Psychology. Feldman has no disclosures. Col. Edri is the Israeli Defense Forces District Commander of the Home Front Command Haifa District. He served as the deputy commander for the Israeli Defense Forces Search and Rescue Delegation, which was brought in to provide international aid to the local and domestic forces responding to the Surfside, Fla., building collapse. Col. Edri has no disclosures. Davidtz is a licensed psychologist and associate professor in the College of Psychology at Nova Southeastern University, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where she is director of internship training for the Psychology Services Center and director of psychological services for the emotionally distressed, a specialty clinic that serves people with serious mental illness and personality disorders. She also maintains a part-time private practice specializing in the treatment of complex posttraumatic conditions and personality disorders. Davidtz has no disclosures.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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