In the hours following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, crisis responders fanned out across the country, bringing help, compassion, and solace to survivors and families of victims. Some professional volunteers drove several hundred miles to assist survivors; all put their lives on hold. Many of the volunteers were organized by the National Organization for Victim Assistance (NOVA), which held a conference in April to honor the survivors and victims of the tragedy and to identify the lessons that could be learned from the experiences. This week, EDC releases a new report, commissioned by NOVA, that documents and examines the volunteer response to the tragedies of September 11th. Integrating voices of survivors and victims with the hundreds of volunteer professionals who came to assist them, this timely report delivers analysis and recommendations for policymakers and emergency planners.
“I was never so proud of NOVA’s volunteers and staff as I was [on the days following September 11th]”, said Marlene Young, Executive Director of NOVA. “I was on the phone around the clock, and every person I called didn’t hesitate, and didn’t raise questions. Every one of them said, “Yes, I’m on the way”—even if that meant a 1,000-mile car trip before the airlines went back intro service. Every one of them put their lives aside to bring compassion and courage to the survivors.”
The report, titled “The Definition of a Hero: NOVA Volunteers Respond to 9-11,” examines the response with an eye toward the future. “Victims and members of the crisis response teams collectively gave us their brain trust of knowledge about what needs to be done after a crisis of this magnitude,” said EDC’s Karen McLaughlin, lead author of the report.
NOVA asked McLaughlin of EDC’s Health and Human Development’s Center for Violence Prevention to write the report based on her extensive experience writing training materials and her long history in the victims’ rights movement. Mclaughlin served as the first executive director of the Massachusetts Office for Victim Assistance and received the National Crime Victims Service Award from President Clinton. In addition, McLaughlin has personally been a NOVA crisis response team member since the mid-80s. Mclaughlin wrote the report with Janice Brodman from EDC’s International Development Division (IDD). Brodman has extensive experience in international victim issues.
For over 20 years, NOVA has been directly responding to catastrophies, training professionals in community crisis response and creating state crisis response teams throughout the United States and internationally. NOVA’s expertise addresses the mental health issues raised by a crisis—issues that are not always considered by emergency planners as they coordinate the initial response of fire, police, and emergency medical personnel. When requested, NOVA teams travel to communities that have experienced a catastrophe and help the communities assess and coordinate the response as well as provide direct services to the victims.
Immediately following the crises of September 11th, NOVA team leaders began mobilizing professional volunteers and working with the local government agencies of the three primary disaster sites. “I prepared my suitcase in a standby fashion,” said Tina Morgan of the Oregon Crisis Response Team. “When I got the call saying, ‘We need you to go, and we need you at the Portland airport,’ I had literally about an hour to leave my job, get home, pack, and be on the highway heading to the airport.”
The report summarizes how NOVA prepared to meet the needs in all three locations, how they coordinated with other victim assistance groups, and the enormous range of direct services and advocacy the teams performed once on location. For instance, NOVA worked with other relief organizations and government agencies in New Jersey to set up the Family Assistance Center at Liberty State Park, NJ, directly across the Hudson River from the World Trade Center site. This served as a “one-stop” site for victims and survivors to obtain the services they needed. Similarly, in the Washington, D.C. area and in Pennsylvania, NOVA-affiliated teams focused on integrating victim services and addressing the mental health needs of all of the people involved.
By reviewing, documenting, and summarizing how these teams of volunteers responded to the enormous needs in the aftermath of September 11th, NOVA hopes this publication will inform the national Office of Homeland Security and all national and state level emergency planners and policymakers. These agencies are currently developing comprehensive plans for responding to large-scale terrorist attacks. McLaughlin believes the experiences documented in the report should convince authorities that “operating based on the goodwill of professionals who donate their time is not nearly enough.” Emergency plans must incorporate support and mental health services for victims and for first responders. She asserts, “it’s in our grasp right now to address this need head on. We have the unique, historic opportunity to make a major concerted effort to build the capacity of victim services in the future.”
The report concludes with 10 recommendations to improve crisis planning and response in the future. Among the 10 recommendations the report calls for “integrating concrete programs to address crisis intervention, mental health, and spiritual needs of survivors; “establishing nationally coordinated group of statewide crisis response teams that are prepared to provide interventions as soon as possible after any disaster;” and coordinating “all financial compensation programs … so that benefits can be provided that meet victim and survivor needs.”
McLaughlin believes the report will carry emotional value for victims and families of survivors, in addition to the value of the information it contains for crisis response planners. By collecting and organizing records and archival materials from victims and team members, the report preserves stories that shouldn’t be forgotten—and ones that may influence positive change. “I’ve never been involved in a project that bore witness to so many painful stories and then had the opportunity to make a real change in policy because of them,” said McLaughlin.
Originally published on September 1, 2002