Defense recommends crisis support centers for employee families

The Defense Department should institutionalize the use of support centers to help families of employees after a crisis, a new Pentagon report says.

Just hours after American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the west side of the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, officials there quickly formed a plan to provide support and crisis intervention assistance to the families of the victims. At 7 a.m. on Sept. 12, the new Pentagon Family Assistance Center opened at the Sheraton Crystal City Hotel in Arlington, Va., and in the following weeks, Pentagon officials learned by trial and error how to effectively respond to the various needs and requests of affected families, the March 2003 report said.

"The center served as a safe place where families could obtain accurate information, receive counseling, and take advantage of a wide range of support services," David Chu, Defense undersecretary for personnel and readiness wrote in a letter accompanying the report assessing the response of the Pentagon's family assistance center to the attack. Though military bases are required to have plans for dealing with families following an emergency or disaster, there was no comprehensive plan at the Pentagon, which houses all the military installations, as well as the Office of the Secretary of Defense. As a result, officials at the Pentagon decided to combine the resources of the four military services, and join with federal, state and local agencies and nonprofit organizations, such as the Salvation Army and American Red Cross, to provide services to affected family members.

To get the center up and running, officials spent the night of Sept. 11 rounding up people with experience in family support services and familiarity with Defense Department procedures and policies. Staffers in Hampton, Va. drove through the night to help open the center on Sept. 12.

"Collectively, these organizations and individuals reinvented the Defense Department tradition of 'taking care of our own' by supporting the families of our fallen comrades, as well as the families of the passengers and crew on American Airlines Flight 77," Chu said.

The center operated on a 24-hour basis. Its services included pastoral counseling and care by chaplains; childcare; advice and information on civilian and military benefits and compensation; and information on lodging, transportation, and financial and legal assistance. A call center was established to provide information about missing people, to help with next-of-kin information and to notify families about the services available to them at the center.

The center's mission evolved as family needs changed, the report said, and eventually focused on helping families of missing or dead victims. The staff adapted the organizational structure to accommodate the changes. The center ultimately became a central location for mortuary affairs, medical, DNA and dental record collection and referrals to other resources.

The report recommended that the joint family assistance center concept be institutionalized and that Pentagon officials adopt plans and policies that would ensure a "comprehensive, consistent and equitable response to the needs of families in crisis."

To do this, the report recommended that all the military services create a plan for organizing a joint family assistance center, if needed, following a disaster or other emergency.

Military services should also develop a plan for disbursing emergency assistance money, identify staffers with needed expertise, develop a communications strategy and establish emergency funding resources, according to the report.

"By collaborating with agencies and organizations that have experience in working with families in crisis, leveraging technology and capitalizing on the insights gained and recommended in this report, and from other incidents, the Defense Department and the military services will be better prepared to respond in times of crisis," the report said.

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