booklet - Impact

booklet - Impact

In Contact with Surivivors

Points for consideration for communication between government

en survivors after disasters and crises

Wouter Jong

Leonie Hoijtink





Wouter Jong

Leonie Hoijtink


Metamorfose Vertalingen

© 2011 Impact

Using the content of this report as clarification or support in articles, books or theses is allowed only with


The original Dutch report can be ordered from Impact, Dutch knowledge & advice centre for post-disaster psychosocial


The Dutch and English versions of this report are digitally available on the Impact website:



Disasters and crises are forceful events that have a lasting impact on the people whose lives they

have touched. These events change relationships between people and affect the balance of existing

social structures. However, disasters and crises also bring solidarity and fellowship in their wake. In

the period immediately following a disaster or crisis the community responds with great sympathy and

a willingness to help. However, whilst the community will soon be ready to get back to life as usual, the

lives of those directly affected by a disaster or crisis will never again be the same.

The same process can be seen at municipal councils, the bodies charged with primary responsibility

for disaster prevention and crisis management. Although there is a great deal of activity immediately

following a disaster, attention often wanes soon after the memorial service. Day-to-day activities are

resumed and after-care for those affected is delegated to contact persons. This guide is meant as a

helping hand for these officials in particular.

Contact persons will do everything they can to provide information, inventory the needs of those

affected by disaster and provide aftercare. They bridge the gap between survivors of disaster and the

municipal council. However, they will often not be sufficiently prepared for long-term contact with

disaster survivors: What do affected persons actually experience? What do they need? What are the

things we need to be aware of? How do these matters affect the communication between disaster

survivors and their contact persons? How should we deal with this? This guide aims to address all of

the above in detail.

This guide also discusses the role of the contact person as a civil servant, on the one hand, and

someone to whom a survivor can turn, on the other. These roles may come into conflict with one

another, because interests will not always run parallel. A municipal council could impose restrictions

on aftercare, for example. At the same time, we must be aware that contact persons themselves also

need support from the municipality to do their counselling work adequately, in addition to performing

their regular duties. Indeed, they may need counselling themselves, as the emotional impact of giving

aftercare to disaster survivors can be considerable.

This guide offers insights, tips and points for consideration to contact persons who maintain long-term

contact with disaster survivors on behalf of the municipality. We hope our recommendations will help

them prepare for their tasks and also avoid some of the known pitfalls that accompany crisis

situations. It is up to every professional in disaster prevention and crisis management to pick and

choose from the lessons presented in this guide at will, because no two crises are the same.

Moreover, every contact with a survivor has its own context and momentum.

Hopefully, the lessons described in this guide will support contact persons working at the behest of

municipal bodies.



Objective and target group

This guide was compiled primarily for contact persons appointed on behalf of a municipal council to

provide aftercare to residents who have experienced a disaster or other traumatic event. These

contact persons bridge the gap between the municipal council and the disaster survivors. They provide

information, take stock of needs and try to provide whatever is necessary within reasonable bounds.

This guide is also useful for civil servants of regional and national government bodies charged with

responsibility for the aftermath of a disaster or crisis that transcends geographic borders, including the

provision of aftercare to the population. The objective of the guide is to provide these contact persons

with useful tips and points for consideration and a guideline for the performance of their work.


The tips and experiences in this booklet were taken from interviews with contact persons from

municipal councils, trainers and experts. A number of these experiences were already published in

Wereld van Verschil (World of Difference) 18 , a collection of interviews with survivors of disasters and

crises about their experiences with various government bodies. The guidelines are also supported by

excerpts taken from a number of academic papers and books.

Reader’s guide

The tips and experiences are organised in seven categories. (1) Coping with the aftermath. This

section takes a closer look at the stages a person goes through in coping with the aftermath of a

disaster, and at communication between disaster survivors and contact persons in each of these

stages. (2) The survivor. The point of view and general needs of a disaster survivor are discussed

here. (3) The social context. This section examines the role of the survivor’s immediate environment in

the relationship between the contact person and the survivor and how this can be put to use. (4) The

professional context. Information is given here about other parties who also maintain contact with the

survivor, such as the police, the case manager and the Public Prosecutor. The contact person too will

liaise with each of these parties. (5) The municipal organisation. This section further examines the role

played by the municipality and what the organisation must be aware of in order to provide adequate

support to contact persons. (6) The direct lines of communication. This concerns specific issues of

which contact persons should be aware in their direct contact with survivors. (7) Equilibrium. This

section, finally, explores the effects that this type of work can have on the contact persons themselves.


This guide was compiled with a grant from the Dutch Ministry of Security and Justice.


Coping with the aftermath

Disasters and crises are traumatic events that have a lasting impact on the lives of those who have

lived through them. No two people will deal with such an experience in the same way: the process of

healing is different for each individual. We can, however, distinguish between four general stages that

people go through following a disaster, the ‘Stages of Disaster’ 6 (although the stages will not always

occur in exactly the time span assigned to them, nor always be identified by the names below). 9,19,21

In the first few hours after a disaster survivors generally experience the ‘heroic stage’, also

called the ‘impact stage’. 9,11 Key words to describe this stage are survival, disbelief and

bewilderment. In most cases, media coverage will be quite intense in this stage.

During the next stage, the ‘honeymoon’, a feeling of kinship is generated between survivors

and non-affected and help is offered from many sides. Survivors are hopeful of recovery.

These feeling of hope are often destroyed during the ‘disillusion stage’, when the

surrounding environment resumes its day-to-day activities and interest in the survivors begins

to wane. Survivors will feel disappointed, angry and deserted. These feelings are amplified

when promises, made for instance by the government, are not kept.

The last stage is the ‘reintegration stage’, in which survivors come to realise that they will

have to build up their lives once again. 6,11 The transition from the disillusion stage to the

reintegration stage strongly depends on the effects and circumstances of the disaster. 11

According to experts, this stage can take anywhere from 3 to 36 months after the disaster. 21

It is apparent from these descriptions that each stage is accompanied by different emotions. The

relationship between survivors, 1 on the one hand, and society – in the broadest sense – on the other,

changes throughout each of these stages. Experience has taught us that long-term contact is

essential for survivors and that account must be taken of their changing needs during the course of

their learning to cope with the effects of the disaster.

Difficulties in the acceptance process

Contact persons will realise that no two survivors will pass through each of the four stages of disaster

at the same speed. Moreover, experience has shown that people do not flow smoothly from one stage

to the next, but encounter difficulties in the acceptance process. External developments may

unintentionally take them back to the day of the disaster. New developments in a court case (and the

media’s response), an extensive background article in a newspaper or the presentation of an

inspection report could all trigger setbacks in the acceptance process. 9

In the period following a disaster, its survivors will respond in different ways. The consequence of this

is that the acceptance process is not synchronous amongst the members of a group of survivors at

memorial events, the commencement of legal proceedings, appeal cases, etc. One person may be

ready to face a memorial service, a trial or the presentation of an inspection report by the Dutch Safety

Board, while another may not have reached this stage at all. Contact persons must be aware that this

could lead to strained relations within the group. A good example of this is the fire at De Punt, where

three firemen met their deaths in 2008. Family members and colleagues from the fire department met

1 This guide uses the term “survivors” for both those who experienced a disaster first hand and the surviving

relatives of victims.


at an annual four-day hiking event, where the fire department traditionally treats hikers to jets of water

from fire hoses. This gave the impression to several of the deceased firemen’s surviving relatives that

their colleagues had already forgotten about the disaster. 14

Points for consideration:

Understand that survivors go through different stages when coping with the aftermath of a

disaster. The different phases are dominated by different emotions. These emotions can affect the

contact between survivors and contact persons and the expectations survivors have of what their

contact persons can do for them.

Understand that everyone has their own pace of healing. Every grieving and acceptance

process is unique. One person will be back on his or her feet faster than another. Where one

person has already put everything behind him, another may only have taken the first step towards

healing and acceptance. The fact that healing processes do not run synchronously can lead to

tension between survivors of the same disaster.

Understand that external factors can lead to disruptions in the healing process. Some

disruptive factors can be predicted, such as trials, presentations of inspection reports and annual

news survey shows at the end of the year. Other factors cannot be predicted, such as the

appearance of a background article in a newspaper, high-profile Internet publications or a similar

disaster occurring elsewhere. This could trigger (or re-trigger) feelings of grief, anger, injustice, reexperience,

etc. in the survivor, which they might then vent on their contact persons.

Understand that it may take some time for people to understand the broader perspective.

Their focus will initially be on their own recovery. The majority of survivors will only be able to put

the events surrounding the disaster into perspective at a later stage.

Keep in mind that the types of questions asked by survivors will also change in the course

of the healing process. The initial questions will mainly cover such practical topics as missing

persons, identification, recovery of personal items, etc. Later on, questions about recovery of

damages, insurance and building up your life where you left off will take up a more prominent



The survivor

Disasters and crises impact peoples’ lives. From one moment to the next, they become part of a

disaster and their very existence is overturned. Such an experience brings many different emotions in

its wake. Within this context, people often speak of a ‘normal response to an abnormal event’. Two key

emotions are ‘anger’ and the sense that there is a ‘lack of acknowledgement’ of what happened.


in his inaugural lecture, victimology professor Frans Willem Winkel (University of Tilburg) posed that

anger is the key emotion felt by people who have experienced a traumatic event. 29 These people are

not scared, passive and vulnerable victims who have had something happen to them. They have had

to suffer grief unexpectedly.

The outside world may call a survivor a moaner, but from the survivor’s own perspective their

behaviour is understandable in many cases. The suggestion that they are exaggerating or are after

financial gains can easily infuriate a survivor. Anger can also stem from actions taken by government

authorities. An example of this is what happened to the Freriks family who, in Wereld van verschil,

spoke about their son who died during the attack on the Kuta Beach resort area on Bali. After having

been missing for months, the body of their son was sent back to the Netherlands for burial. ‘A few

days later we received a fine from the Municipality of Leiden on account of the fact that we had not

buried Norbert within five days of his death. I can make light of it now, but it affected me deeply for

several days. Burial within five days is compulsory according to the Dutch Burial and Cremation Act.

You have to apply for a permit from the municipality if you want to bury someone later. It’s just

amazing that there was nobody who, being aware of the situation, intercepted this fine.’ 18

Others understand afterwards that their anger towards the government may not be justified after all. A

survivor of the tsunami put things into perspective in Wereld van verschil: ‘Of course, we suffered from

a stress syndrome. I won’t mince matters. You're angry and want to vent your emotions. You get fired

up very easily. (...) Given a choice, you’d rather direct your anger towards the government than

towards your wife.’ 18

Lack of acknowledgement

In addition to ‘anger’ survivors often speak of a ‘lack of acknowledgement’. Social acknowledgment of

your suffering is necessary if you want to get back on your feet again. According to Nico Hoffer, former

secretary of the Legionnaire’s Disease Foundation, which looks after the interests of the survivors of

Legionnaire’s Disease, the epidemic in Bovenkarspel was a 'neglected disaster'. He spoke about it in

Wereld van verschil: ‘The burning cafe in Volendam remains engraved on your retina. Just like the

Roombeek district in Enschede, which was hit by a fireworks disaster. With the Legionnaire's Disease

epidemic, the images shown were of elderly people strolling past flower beds. It never had the impact

on the collective consciousness that other disasters had. Tragically, this wasn’t a ‘mediagenic’

disaster.’ 18

Due to a lack of acknowledgement, survivors are left feeling that their complaints are not taken

seriously. Survivors greatly appreciate meetings with members of the Royal Family, who have often

given survivors the feeling of acknowledgement they so badly sought. The father of Amé, who died in

the tsunami in Thailand, met Queen Beatrix and Princess Máxima at a memorial service: ‘Generally

speaking, I’m not such a fan of the Royals, but I noticed that they were both deeply affected when we

spoke of the tragedy. We got the feeling that they truly understood what had happened. It was a

special moment.’ 18

Acknowledgement, or lack of it, is an oft-recurring topic. There is also something paradoxical about it:

while lack of media coverage is considered the equivalent of lack of acknowledgement, an abundance


of media coverage is considered a nuisance. Acknowledgement is not only generated by the amount

of media coverage directly after a disaster has occurred, but also by trials and inspection reports

describing the disaster. Do the survivors feel taken seriously in reports and when their case is taken to

court? In the past this was not always the case, because accounts of survivors’ experiences were not

included in reports or these experiences were underestimated or played down because they were

considered ‘impossible’. Furthermore, the media will lose interest in survivors once a governmental or

political crisis has erupted on account of the crisis. The focus then shifts from survivors’ experiences to

the political consequences of the disaster. If political intrigue takes the upper hand in the aftermath of

a disaster and the impact it has had on the lives of its survivors is pushed to the background, some

survivors will feel as if they’re being hit when they’re down. Experience has taught us that emotions

like these can be projected onto a survivor’s contact person, who is the survivor’s most accessible

representative from a government body.


However, anger and a sense of lack of acknowledgement are not dominant emotions for everyone.

After the initial shock, most people are able to get back on their feet again by themselves. It is known

that most people manage to make it through a disaster or traumatic event without professional help.

Although the figures differ per disaster, it is generally said that about 80 per cent of people are

sufficiently resilient. 5,17,28

A minority, however, struggle with post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTTS) and other post-traumatic

complaints. Berthold Gersons, a retired psychology professor, talks about this in Wereld van verschil:

‘People suffering from PTSS have a disorder in their automatic stress response system. It does not

relax. Their system remains active and normal thought is inhibited. […] In cases such as these, we

revisit the situation to allow the survivor to feel the emotions once again, because there was not

enough time for emotions at the time of the disaster. What we have observed is that most people will

be able to let go of their fear once they were able to re-experience the disaster. In a small percentage

however these emotions will linger.’ 18 These problems can continue to affect them for many years

after. 11,13,20

A disaster is a lifelong experience for a survivor. People are not only reminded of the disaster at

annual memorial services, holidays or birthdays but on numerous other occassions. This applies

equally to people who have come through a disaster with professional help and to those who did so on

their own, backed by their social network. 6 A permanent, supporting context is crucial to survivors of a

disaster. A ready ear, support and consolation and having people around who are immediately

responsive to practical needs can all serve to enhance a person’s resilience. 5,17

Need for flexibility

Survivors and government bodies are differently affected by disasters and, as a result, have different

objectives. Whilst government bodies try to limit the consequences of a disaster and bring everything

back to normal as soon as possible, the lives of disaster survivors will never be the same again.

Things will never return to the way they were before the disaster. The greater the lack of

understanding between the government body and the survivor, the more the survivor’s dissatisfaction

will grow with government actions. 26

Furthermore, government bodies will try to fight the consequences of a crisis or disaster through

formal procedures regulating the disaster control and crisis management process. The specific

situation of individual disaster survivors will sometimes demand a degree of flexibility from a civil

servant that cannot always be provided within the frameworks set down in those procedures. Issues

such as guilt and responsibility also play an important part in the process. Although a government

body may feel responsible, it will not always be held liable in the legal sense. One might very well ask

whether shouldering a certain amount of responsibility towards survivors also implies acceptance of


liability. Or is there a grey zone between responsibility and liability within which action can still be

taken to help survivors? Contact persons can find themselves in the uncomfortable situation of having

to choose between the rational, administrative reality and the emotions and needs of the survivors.

Points for consideration:

Understand that survivors respond in a normal way to an abnormal situation. Anger and the

feeling that your loss is not being acknowledged are standard examples of this. Survivors may also

be disappointed that the government was unable to prevent a disaster from happening. No matter

how undeserved this may be, such feelings may be vented on contact persons. If this happens, be

patient and don’t take it personally.

Understand that most people are resilient and will be able to get on with their lives of their own

accord. Do not point out to survivors what they may have done wrong, but give them the support

they need to pick up the pieces and move on, by helping them find practical, legal, physical or

psychological help, for instance. Help survivors look towards the future.

Take people seriously in their perception of a situation. Give survivors the opportunity to tell

their story. Refrain from passing judgement, but dare to hold up a mirror from time to time. Channel

emotions and moderate expectations at micro level.

Do not restrict your attention to survivors; do not forget their surviving relatives, passers-by,

relief workers and other people lending a hand in the acute stage of a disaster.

If possible, take a pragmatic approach to the rules. Assess how strictly rules should be

followed, taking into account the disaster or crisis situation at hand. Regulations that are effective

for society in general may have an adverse effect in individuals. Examples are fines or the

distribution of sensitive personal information that could inhibit the healing process. Inform other

organisations that could play a role in the matter, such as the Tax Authorities (who generally levy

taxes on the money collected for disaster relief).

‘C’est le ton qui fait la musique’. What tends to be most important in practice is how the

government bodies in question maintain contact with survivors, the words spoken and the emotion

that comes through. Are survivors consoled, is their situation acknowledged, or does the

government – unintentionally – come across as distant and businesslike?


The social context

After a crisis, people often turn to support from their day-to-day social environment, such as family

members, friends and colleagues. 3,5,28 Support could consist of practical help directly after a disaster or

traumatic event has occurred, like giving someone a lift home, or consolation and a willingness to

listen. It is not only the concrete support given by the direct environment that is important, but also the

survivor’s perception of support and the extent to which they are satisfied with their social network. 1,16

Paradoxically, after a disaster or crisis support and understanding from the social environment will

start to wane within months after the occurrence, while the events only really start to sink in for

survivors and survivors once the practical matters – funerals, damage claims, recovery of personal

items, etc. – have all been taken care of. 15,22 It is essential that a survivor’s immediate environment

continues to provide support and does not resort to such platitudes as: ‘You have to get on with your


The attitude adopted by the survivor’s immediate environment in part determines how a survivor

experiences a crisis. It is therefore essential that contact persons helping survivors on behalf of a

municipality map out the survivors’ social environment at an early stage. What is their family situation?

Have they had previous marriages? Are the survivors socially active in clubs or associations? What is

the social hierarchy within this community? Has a religious community been involved? Is there any

tension among the survivors? It is important to be aware of all these issues. We want to prevent any

indiscretions from occurring out of ignorance that could lead to strained relations between survivors

and their contact persons. A typical example of such an indiscretion is failing to inform children from a

previous marriage of the death of their father assuming that the second wife will do so, or forcing

confrontations between rival family members during a memorial service.

Such information cannot always be obtained through municipal records. Contacting clubs and

associations, schools or religious organisation can help establish a clear picture of a survivor and his

or her environment. It may also be a good idea to involve such organisations or groups in special days

and gatherings such as memorial services. Familiarity with a survivor’s culture or religion is also

important with a view to responding adequately to rituals and actions, and taking specific values into

account. 2 Moreover, these organisations may also wish to organise their own activities in response to

the disaster. It is important to coordinate the various roles and activities, and to take account of the

survivors' needs. The community may wish to organise a silent march, while the survivors have

indicated that they are not ready for such an event or simply do not want it. In that case, the wishes of

the survivors must be respected and another option may be sought to enable the community to

express its support.

Points for consideration:

Activate the underlying social network. Friends, family and colleagues will see the survivors on

a daily basis and offer the most direct help through consolation and a willingness to listen and

provide support. Meeting with fellow survivors can also help; the awareness of not being the only

one to suffer a tragedy can produce a healing effect. Understand that a survivor’s fellow sufferers

may live in other municipalities and are not automatically involved in the same activities.

2 You will find more information about multicultural grieving on


Map out family relationships. Are family ties close or has the family drifted apart? Are there any

stepchildren, previous marriages, pending divorces or other family affairs that can have an effect

on the contact? This will also be of interest to correspondence from sympathisers, such as the

mayor, royal commissioner, ministers, etc.

Be alert for any strained relations. Are there strained relations between family members or

among the survivors themselves? Be prepared that not all survivors will share the same opinion or

needs. Perhaps some of the survivors want a memorial plaque erected, while others are adamantly

against it. Be aware that good, clear communication will in all cases lead to better understanding of

the municipality’s standpoint.

Never choose sides. A lot of pressure can be put on a contact person to choose sides in the event

of conflicting opinions – between survivors amongst themselves, between survivors and the

municipality or other government bodies, etc. Retain a neutral position. Discuss the issue internally,

if necessary: when faced with a moral dilemma, involve an alderman or a mayor.

Be aware of the different positions of family members. The family of the perpetrator (the

suspect) will also be shocked and in need of support. Take stock of their needs and coordinate

matters with the families involved to see how everyone’s needs can be taken care of, such as

allowing everyone to be present at a memorial service. With a view to loyalty conflicts, try to

prevent contact persons from being involved with both suspect’s families and survivors.

Familiarise yourself with the social network (schools, sports clubs, residents’ associations,

religious organisations, etc.) and know who should be informed and with whom to maintain contact.

If necessary, contact any other parties that have played a role during or prior to the crisis (e.g. the

organisers of an event). Use this social network. Don’t reinvent the wheel: delegate tasks to these

social partners at moments when it is logical to do so.

Liaise where necessary with survivors and their social network (churches, associations, schools,

etc.). Think one step ahead: What processes will be set in motion? What are the next questions to

be asked? Anticipate which steps will need to be taken, but don’t get ahead of yourself. Start by

asking survivors what they want and need. Take note that people directly affected by a disaster can

identify themselves with initiatives organised by third parties (memorial services, gatherings, etc.).

Prevent the local community from taking precedence over individual grief. In a closely knit

community a disaster is more likely to be experienced collectively. Not only those directly affected

or surviving relatives, but the entire village will feel the impact. The balance between individual

needs and collective emotions is very delicate. Offer custom work. Holding a silent march is not

matter-of-course; consult those directly affected by the incident first. Their wishes take precedence.

Be aware of the need for rituals. In many cultures, grief is expressed in rituals. Determine which

rituals are suitable and when these should be performed. Rituals can be enacted by churches or

other religious organisations. Other rituals include activities like conferring decorations to veterans,

or the mayor sending a letter of condolence.

Be aware of a survivor’s ethnic background. If you are not sufficiently familiar with the practices

of a specific ethnic group, call in the advice of an expert. Assigning a contact person to a case on

the basis of his or her ethnic background may have adverse consequences as the contact person

could experience a loyalty conflict (as a civil servant and member of an ethnic group). Be open and

honest about unfamiliarity with cultural etiquette. Ask survivors to let you know what is and is not

acceptable behaviour in their culture.


The professional context

A contact person should focus on providing information to the survivor and taking stock of his or her

needs. In some cases, however, a contact person will also be the agent responsible for setting things

in motion within his or her government body and for arranging practical issues. In the aftermath of a

crisis, the contact person is easily seen as the representative of the government. That government

manifests itself in numerous roles to the survivors, such as that of family liaison officer or detective

specialised in sexual offence, the national institute of mental health, spokesperson, chief of police,

public prosecutor, social worker, psychosocial carer, etc.

Within the disaster control and crisis management organisation, these roles are clearly defined.

However, the multitude of government bodies can be confusing for survivors. Explaining the roles of all

these parties to a survivor (What can each of these organisations do to help the survivor?) and

coordinating their actions can be quite a challenge, but it will prevent survivors from feeling run over by

hordes of well-meaning relief workers.

Case manager and family liaison officer

Two parties that a contact person from the municipality is likely to come into contact with are the case

manager – the family’s primary point of contact, who could be someone from the Victim Support

Organisation – and the family liaison officer assigned by the police department.

Surviving relatives of victims of homicide are offered the services of a case manager 3 . This is a

professional who, in addition to the professional training he or she has enjoyed, has also taken internal

training courses in the field of psychosocial, legal and practical services geared towards this specific

target group. The case manager is a confidential mediator who acts as a spider in the web by offering

assistance to surviving relatives in the form of practical assistance and information. 27

The family liaison officer acts as the contact person for the police department on current

investigations. He/she is not directly involved in the investigation, but receives information from the

investigation team leader which he can share with the family on behalf of the police department.

Conversely, the family liaison officer will also relay information about the family to the investigation

team, insofar as this is of interest to the investigation.

The family liaison officer is generally the first representative from the government to contact the family

in the event of a missing person, murder or homicide. We know from experience that the case

manager does not make an appearance until later, because the family will initially be busy seeking

information and will not start grieving until later. Once the investigation has been concluded, the case

manager will start to play a more important role. The family liaison officer will then revert to the

background and return with concrete information when this becomes available once court proceedings

are initiated. As regards the rest of the process (practical, legal and/or psychological assistance), the

case manager is generally the primary point of contact for survivors in the final phases.

Contacts with case managers and family liaison officers

It is unusual for contact persons from the municipal council to be in direct contact with family liaison

officers. Family liaison officers are generally screened off from outside contacts by the team

3 Brochures and background information are available on the website of the Netherlands Victim Support

Organisation (Slachtofferhulp Nederland):


coordinator, who is hierarchically the officer’s superior. All necessary contact between the municipality

and the family liaison officer is generally arranged via the team coordinator.

The municipality can, however, seek direct contact with the case manager. The case manager can be

consulted to define the role and expectations of all parties involved in the situation at hand.

Contact with other parties

The type of crisis and the situation in which the survivors find themselves determinine the number of

organisations that need to be called in to provide support. It is not possible to know exactly beforehand

which organisations will be called in. This is why we recommend drawing up an overview of all the

parties that you know to have professional relations with the survivor, the roles they have been

assigned and where these may overlap. Such a network overview provides insight into those cases

where it may be useful to communicate with specific parties to prevent survivors from feeling

overwhelmed by an abundance of well-meaning social workers and suchlike.

A single counter

A smooth flow of communication and information towards those directly and indirectly affected by a

crisis or disaster can relieve them of a great deal of uncertainty and stress. To leave no room for

speculation and rumours, it is essential that government bodies communicate in a clear and open

fashion. 13,25 This concerns primarily the information about the crisis or disaster itself, what happened to

loved ones and how investigations are progressing (if applicable). 2,23 At a later stage, the focus will

shift to what is a normal response to an abnormal situation, how to submit a claim for damages, where

to obtain legal aid, etc. This information is primarily intended to provide survivors with tools to help

them return to their normal daily routine as quickly as possible.

Since the fireworks disaster in Enschede and the café fire in Volendam, it has become standard

procedure to offer all this information at a single location 11 to prevent survivors from being sent from

one organisation to the other and having to explain their experiences over and over again. In the

cases of Enschede and Volendam relevant information was offered at one physical location

(Information and Advice Centre – IAC, or the Advice and Information Centre – AIC, respectively). In

cases where survivors are dispersed throughout the country, use can also be made of a virtual

Information and Referral Centre (IVC). Such websites were set up after the tsunami in 2004, the

Queen’s Day assassination attempt in 2009 and the Tripoli plane crash in 2010.

Points for consideration:

The division of roles and tasks of the government bodies involved is not always clear to

survivors. Public officers make clear distinctions between the municipal council, the police

department and the Public Prosecutor, but survivors will see all three as ‘representatives of Dutch

government bodies’. If necessary, clearly explain to all survivors which tasks are allocated to which

person or body.

Familiarise yourself with the network of key players and know what each person’s task is.

Don’t take over someone else’s role.

Maintain contact with the other parties engaged in the survivor’s case, such as the case

manager, the police department, the Public Prosecutor, etc. Keep each other informed of

developments in the case, so that fellow organisations will not be faced with surprises.

Coordinate tasks. When a party completes its tasks in a particular case, this may affect the tasks

of other parties involved in the same case. This could happen, for instance, when the family liaison


Coordinate accessibility. When are fellow organisations available and what are their contact

details in the event of an emergency?

Discuss your experiences with survivors with other parties. What are the developments? Has

the case manager or family liaison officer noticed any tension, for instance? Have the survivors

formed a common interest group? Does this group represent the interests of the entire group or

only a limited number of survivors?

Protect survivors from unwanted public exposure as much as possible. Various investigators

(legal, academic, media) will want to interview survivors and hear about their experiences. It can be

very painful and exhausting for survivors to talk about their experiences over and over again. Take

the timing of the investigations into account and decide which persons should or should not be

approached. Announce investigations in advance so that survivors do not feel caught unawares.

Keep as tight a rein as you can over the media. Make agreements with the media about what

can and cannot be broadcast/published. Ask the survivors what they want and inform them about

what to expect from contact with the media. Involve the communications department to offer

survivors the necessary support in their media contacts.

Call in external expertise, for instance to organise and provide support to memorial services

(funeral director, key officials, ethnic minority organisations, etc.). You can also draw on the

experiences of other government bodies (municipalities, central government) who have organised

similar memorial services in the past. The procedure is often too sensitive to allow for mistakes.

Make explicit agreements about the tasks to be fulfilled by external experts and who should bear

final responsibility. If necessary, link external experts to internal staff to facilitate the division of

tasks, as internal staff can be expected to know whom to approach – and how – for specific



The municipal organisation

In the immediate aftermath of a crisis or disaster, all the attention will initially be focused on managing

the crisis and involving the shocked community. Soon, however, the focus will shift to administrative

and political affairs, dominated by investigations by various institutions, and issues such as

accountability and liability. In that phase, the municipal organisation will view the crisis from a more

administrative point of view.

Contact persons helping survivors may consequently feel unable to participate in the activities carried

out by the rest of the municipal organisation. The municipal council will be very busy investigating

accountability. Colleagues working in the same department are not professionally concerned with the

emotions of the survivors. This can result in a rift between colleagues. It may be easy to say that you

wish to 'limit support to survivors', but in practice it is difficult to draw the line. A contact person may

experience considerable pressure when explaining the limits of municipal responsibility to a survivor.

Survivors must also understand that there are limits to the extent to which their contact person is able

to help them.

At the same time, the entire municipal organisation must be alert; the government has contacts with

citizens in numerous areas, and therefore also with the survivors of the disaster. In addition to the

contact person, other civil servants have contact with the survivors. It is a good idea to screen your

own organisation to discover if there are any other contacts with survivors. For example, are there any

applications for a permit still pending? Are any of the survivors involved in an appeal? Can any of the

survivors expect to be inappropriately fined as the result of the disaster? Matters such as these require

alertness. We know from experience that in the emotional state in which many survivors find

themselves, the smallest mistakes can rapidly take on dramatic proportions. This could have a lasting

negative effect on relations between survivors and their municipality.

The help offered to survivors by the municipality requires management. The municipality needs to give

clear thought to the tasks it takes upon itself and the point in time at which help is offered: What is

realistic? What are the municipality’s responsibilities? How can survivors be helped back on their feet?

When should a task be transferred to another person or department within the existing organisation or

to another organisation?

The appointment of a contact person can be based on this person’s character and the demands of the

survivors and the organisation. Distance can also literally play a part when selecting a contact person:

Do the parties live near each other? Are they members of the same association? Do they attend the

same church? At first glance, it might appear wise to appoint a contact person who is familiar with the

survivor’s community and environment. However, we have to think of the long-term effects. Suppose a

survivor and a contact person are continually reminded of the disaster because they run into each

other at the supermarket frequently? What if their relationship turns sour after a time? In these cases,

sharing a social network and geographic proximity could be a disadvantage. In addition, note that

regular switching contact persons is undesirable for the survivors. A relationship with a contact person

is generally entered into for a long-term period.

Points for consideration:

Work in pairs to avoid the moral dilemmas contact persons will be faced with, such as: How far

will we go in offering support? Where do we draw the line? Which funds are available? In practice,


Work in pairs to avoid emotional over-involvement. We know from experience that colleagues

can more easily prevent each other from becoming overly sensitive to a survivor’s emotions. There

are few things as difficult as having to say ‘no’ on your own.

Work in pairs to coordinate accessibility. The demands of survivors are often fuelled by their

emotions, which do not keep office hours.

Appoint contact persons on the basis of empathy, communication skills and the type of

questions asked by the survivors. Make sure there is literally enough distance between the contact

person and the survivor, to prevent any unwanted confrontations in the future.

Do not underestimate the amount of support required from the municipality. Can the contact

person continue to perform his/her regular duties in addition to the counselling work? Primarily

because this concerns a long-term activity, sufficient time and space must be created within a

contact person's regular package of duties to enable them to perform their counselling tasks


Do not underestimate the value of acknowledgement for the contact person him or herself.

Ensure that there is someone the contact person can turn to if emotions run high during the course

of the work. Communicate appreciation for the potentially heavy emotional burden the contact

person has taken upon him or herself. Scheduling regular meetings to discuss the progress of the

work falls under the organisation's occupational health and safety duties 4 .

Run a check within your own organisation to establish if there are any other existing or future

contacts with survivors and the extent to which this may affect their relationship with the contact

person. Double-check to see if survivors have any procedures running for permit applications or

suchlike. Mark the names of survivors in the system so that colleagues will be alerted to their

situation and call in the contact person if they need to get in touch with a survivor.

Ensure short lines of communication with the mayor or aldermen; work together with them. If

the distance between the contact person and the Municipal Executive becomes too great, chances

are that every higher layer will filter out some of the emotional content of a case. This could result

in managers getting a distorted image of the wishes/needs of the survivors. Because requests are

often fuelled by emotions, it is important that wishes and needs are not assessed only on rational

grounds and to ensure that the people making decisions that affect the survivors also understand

the emotional basis of the request.

Inform and prepare the mayor and aldermen of the current situation if they attend gatherings at

which survivors are present, so that they are adequately prepared to speak to them.

Take note of how a change of office of a mayor or alderman would affect any pledges made to

survivors and the manner in which the municipality expresses its sympathy and acknowledgement

towards the survivors. Keep a file and ensure that information is transferred internally where

necessary in the event of succession.

4 Within the framework of the Occupational Health and Safety Act , employers are required to provide care and aftercare to their



Inform the organisation when and why the municipality believes that contact with survivors

should be phased out. Although the moment does not have to be set down directly, it is important

to set a date at a given time, such as one year after the disaster (first commemoration event).


Direct communication

Contact persons should realise that they will not be fully in control of the process they are embarking

on, because its course is largely determined by the attitude of the survivors and their environment. We

recommend that all parties involved voice their expectations before starting on this project. What can

we expect from the municipality? What about the municipality’s liability? Will survivors receive

notification of all media coverage of the disaster? Or will the municipality only agree to share press

releases with the survivors in advance of their publication? Choose your words carefully in your

communication with survivors. Put things in their own words. How do your words come across?

Expectations of the management

It is essential to be clear and open about what survivors of a disaster can expect from the municipality.

Although there may be a strong emotional desire within the municipal council to say or do something

to alleviate the suffering of disaster survivors, it is essential that no promises are made that cannot be

kept. Statements like ‘everything will be all right’ and ‘we will do everything in our power to help’ must

also be avoided. Such statements could create the impression amongst survivors that the municipality

will take care of everything, both in the administrative and financial sense, which will not be the case in

practice. If survivors believe that they have been promised something and if these promises are not

being kept, they may become angry, disappointed and frustrated. This is sometimes referred to as the

‘disaster after the disaster’.

If the government comes across as cold and impassive during a court hearing, do not forget to explain

the legal context of the situation. Just because the government cannot legally be held liable does not

mean that the government does not feel responsible. Empathy should be underscored, even if the

government does not bear responsibility in the legal sense.

Put things into perspective

Survivors may have a tendency to make issues larger than they really are and see their problems as

insurmountable. In such cases, try to normalise their experience. Where possible, try to break down

major problems into small, manageable bits. Put things into perspective without making light of the

situation. Although it is important that the emotions of survivors are acknowledged, their perception of

the disaster is not necessarily the only valid perception. Problems can actually become greater if too

much empathy is shown. 15 Sometimes, survivors will tend to blame the disaster for negative

experiences that occurred afterwards. Disasters occur in the course of a person’s life, however, and a

divorce after a disaster was not necessarily caused by the disaster. Perhaps the marriage had already

broken down before the event. Hold up a mirror to the survivor and try to put things in a positive light:

‘What is going well?’ Beware of statements such as: ‘Be happy you survived’, ‘Fortunately, you still

have (the rest of) your family’, etc.

Points for consideration:

Be open, honest and transparent in your communication. Identify the survivor’s expectations and

discuss what can be done to meet or adjust them. Explain that the contact person is not able to

oversee every detail and cannot handle everything. Stimulate the survivor’s own sense of



Ask survivors: What can I do for you?, What do you need? and What do you need us to do for

you? Then, do what is asked of you. Make sure not to make any promises you cannot keep.

Set clear targets for meetings with survivors. It is good for a survivor to be able to talk about what

happened, but beware of repetition. Announce the day’s target and explain why it is important. Set

a time for the end of each session. This will create a clear framework for the contact person as well

as the survivor.

Give survivors the opportunity to join in the discussion and have their say in matters. Give

them well thought-out choices. Be consistent in your approach to all survivors; do not forget that

they are in contact with each other, too. News about promises made to an individual will, in

principle, spread almost instantly among the entire group.

Provide information in due time. Find out how survivors want to be informed. Do they prefer to

be called or receive an e-mail; do they want to read all news reports or only press releases

published by the municipality, or do they prefer to find their own way?

Explain legal contexts. If liability and responsibility of the government play a part in court

hearings, the government may come across as businesslike and indifferent. Explain that the

government does not feel unsympathetic and that this is just part of legal proceedings.

Always put yourself in the position of the survivors. When you write a letter, think about how it

will be received by the survivor. Double-check sensitive issues. Is the date of the disaster correct?

Are all the names spelled correctly? If you need to discuss anything with the survivors, ask if they

have time to meet or would rather wait. Survivors often have a lot on their hands.

Discuss your accessibility with the survivors. Let them know that they can always call you in an

emergency, but that the more commonplace matters are best handled during office hours. Do not

give them your private mobile telephone number. This may seem useful in the beginning, but it

could cause problems later on if the relationship changes. Ensure that appointments, promises and

contacts are kept. Confirm appointments made on the telephone by e-mail or post.



Helping others requires a reciprocal relationship that survivors and contact persons develop over a

longer period of time. Although contact persons and survivors generally feel sympathetic towards each

other, the opposite can also be true: a contact person could also feel little sympathy towards the

survivor. Such feelings are only human. Contact persons have their own feelings, wishes and

frustrations, which are all expressed in their work. This is known as counter-transference. 10 It is

important to acknowledge these feelings, regardless of whether they are positive or negative. This can

prevent a survivor from becoming overly dependent on the contact person or, in contrast, from

reacting distantly or even aggressively. If such feelings stand in the way of developing an unbiased

relationship with the survivor, it may be a good idea to transfer the contact to someone else.

Moreover, although it feels good to help others and make yourself useful to survivors, it may become

more than you bargained for and deplete your energy reserves. Contact persons can become

emotionally exhausted and have difficulty facing the tasks associated with the disaster and the

survivor. This is also referred to as ‘compassion fatigue’. 8

Concepts such as counter-transference and compassion fatigue show that while the contact person

has an influence on the survivor, the survivor also has an influence on the contact person and that the

contact itself can be emotionally demanding for the latter. The extent of the impact is proportionate to

the extent to which the contact person can identify with a given situation (for example, both parties

may have children in the same age group or the contact person himself may have suffered the loss of

a loved one recently). It is especially when you are not busy, at night or at other unexpected times,

that a survivor’s experiences may press themselves upon you and emotions come into play. This also

applies to the sense of powerlessness or incompetence if things do not go as planned, if persistent

misunderstandings obscure the relationship, or if the survivor fails to do what you have tried so hard to

make him do.

This once again emphasises the importance of maintaining a professional empathetic relationship with

survivors. Stay alert to your own mood and the impact of the contact. Talk to someone who is willing to

hear about your experiences and the actions you have taken without passing judgement. This will help

you gain insight into your own emotions and actions, reflect on your attitude towards the survivor and

come to terms with what you are experiencing in a healthy way. People who do not talk or are not

asked about what they are going through or who try to cope with their emotions all on their own may

soon feel very tired and/or lonely. If more and more difficult experiences begin to pile up without the

opportunity to discuss them, it may not come as a surprise that a contact person will become unable to

cope with his or her work or may even decide to give it up.

Points for consideration:

Be aware that you cannot leave personal emotions and experiences at home and that these

have an impact on your contact with the survivor.

Listen to yourself. Listen to your feelings, keep your distance, do not become overly involved or

overtired. Make sure you have enough leisure time and do things you enjoy outside of work. Know

where to set limits and talk to someone (family, colleagues, GP) if your work becomes too



With thanks to:

Mr H. Bleijerveld, team leader special funerals, Monuta

Drs A.C. Boele-van Kalkeren, policy analyst Psychosocial Care GGD Kenemerland, bureau GHOR

Drs H. Bogers, head of department Strategy, Communication and Kabinet, municipality of Apeldoorn

Prof B.P.R. Gersons, emeritus professor psychiatry Academisch Medisch Centrum, Universiteit van


Mrs J. Huisman, H&R-advisor, municipality of Tynaarlo

Drs R. Lamers, team Aftercare, municipality of Alphen aan den Rijn

Dr A. Scholtens, senior researcher Crisislab

Drs S. de Smet, concernadvisor communication, municipality of Etten-Leur

Mr J. de Vries, teacher/researcher Police academy

Drs W. Waelen, administrative communication advisor, municipality of Apeldoorn

Drs H. Wagemans, strategic advisor safety, municipality of Noordoostpolder

Drs A. Withaar, director training center “de Essenburgh”



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