Catastrophic work / life balance: Emergency responder role conflict and abandonment - implications for managers

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No one would seriously question the courage of our emergency responders, or their loyalty and sense of duty. But what happens when, in catastrophic emergencies, their duty as responders conflicts with their duty as a partner, parent or child; or in the case of volunteers perhaps, their duty to other organisations? These dilemmas can result in 'role conflict' which can detract from performance at work or result in the 'abandonment' of duty. These phenomena have been researched, from time to time, since the 1950's but the focus returned after Hurricane Katrina that hit New Orleans in 2005. During that event, at a time where a community was in desperate need of police support, 240 of the 1450 strong force did not go to work, some for many weeks. Of the 240, 51 were later fired for 'abandoning their posts'. After the storm, another sixty officers resigned and two committed suicide. In 2011 the University of Delaware, Disaster Research Centre (DRC), reported the results of a meta-evaluation of the research done to examine role strain, role conflict and abandonment in incidents ranging from natural disasters and terrorist attacks to pandemics. The DRC observed that, methodologically, the research fell into two categories; behavioural studies that examined actual incidents, and perception studies that measured what people thought they would do in a hypothetical situation. The results between the groups varied enormously with perception studies predicting up to 70% abandonment in some cases but behavioural studies being far more optimistic to the point that it was suggested that role abandonment would not have a significant operational impact. This paper will discuss the manifestations of role conflict in emergency services and the potential for role abandonment suggesting that, while the likelihood of mass abandonment is low, there may be a 'tipping point' at which it will occur. The Victorian fires of 2009 are examined as an event where one mexpect evidence of abandonment. Finally the author will discuss proactive measures that may be considered during the planning, prevention and response phases of a disaster or catastrophe to mitigate against role conflict, thereby increasing performance and reducing the risk of mass abandonment.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationEarth, Fire and Rain
Place of PublicationAustralia
PublisherAST Management Pty Ltd
Number of pages16
ISBN (Electronic)9780980814743
Publication statusPublished - 2012
EventAustralian & New Zealand Disaster and Emergency Management Conference - Brisbane Exhibition & Convention Centre, Brisbane, Australia
Duration: 16 Apr 201218 Apr 2012


ConferenceAustralian & New Zealand Disaster and Emergency Management Conference
Abbreviated titleEarth: Fire and Rain
Internet address


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