In Contact with Surivivors
Points for consideration for communication between government
en survivors after disasters and crises
© 2011 Impact
Using the content of this report as clarification or support in articles, books or theses is allowed only with
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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
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.
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
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’
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
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 www.rouwrituelen.nl
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): http://www.slachtofferhulp.nl
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).
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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