Of course, I have empathy but I would not be useful to people if I cried with them

From unit and mission staff to individual case managers, emergency staff, psychological support experts, French emergency aid workers and hotline volunteers, anyone working at the Crisis Centre will inevitably face a distressing situation. At times, the experiences can be extremely challenging, and happen so frequently that one might wonder how staff manage their emotions to get the job done during difficult events.

Everyone who works at the Crisis and Support Centre agrees: it is a committed undertaking, but you cannot devote your entire career to the CDCS. A person’s time at the Crisis Centre is intense and full of enriching professional and human experiences, but you can only spend a few years there. It is essential that people know themselves well and are able to recognize when it is time to seek out other horizons. This key moment is different for everyone. Damien Deluz-Martineau, the Centre’s psychologist, says, “You have to keep a certain distance and have a life outside the CDCS. I always say that you can’t be in the thick of things at all times and you must always remember that it’s a job. And most of all, you mustn’t stay ‘one year too many’ – you have to know when to move on.”

Working at the CDCS

Individual cases

Carole Loisel and Virginie Liang are in charge of missing persons and deceased persons, respectively, for the Individual Cases Unit. Some 7,400 French nationals pass away abroad each year. Of those, 560 are “reported cases”, with 310 being violent deaths. Ms Loisel provides daily support, sometimes over several weeks and for up to months or years, for people searching for missing loved ones. Ms Liang assists grieving families in handling formalities and body repatriation. A balance must be struck as relationships form between officials and victims’ family members. Staff have to learn to be effective, available and sympathetic, while keeping “the right distance”. Ms Liang explains that she is a professional first and foremost. “Of course I’m sympathetic, but can’t help people if I’m crying too. The best way for me to help is to assist in the procedures they have to handle.

Working at a crisis unit creates a sort of stress that stimulates the body almost like an adrenaline rush. Anyone who has worked at the CDCS has gone through this, and all Crisis Centre staff may be called to work in the crisis unit. These experiences lead teams to bond. They all pull together to fulfil their role of providing assistance to victims. The CDCS is supported by full- and part-time volunteers. These volunteers provide precious help that varies depending on the scope and duration of a crisis.

Working at the CDCS

Responding in emergency situations

Monique Cluzeau, a volunteer for the French Red Cross who works at the hotline, is a part-time volunteer. She has an in-depth understanding of what it is to work in a crisis unit. The hotline takes calls within a crisis unit, serving as a first point of contact for family members and gathering information. The team ranges from 10 to 50 people. Ms Cluzeau trains and manages the volunteers from the association who answer the hotline, and even answers calls herself. She “fell in love with this activity, where [she] feels especially useful and appreciated.” This mother of three adult children always makes herself available. For example, on 14 July 2016, she did not hesitate to work back-to-back crises (the Nice attack and the attempted coup d’état in Turkey) without time off in between. The next generation is ready: she has shared her passion with her daughter and two sons, who are also Red Cross volunteers who work at the CDCS. Now, “when the phone rings at night, I go round to see who’s home and we go in together,” she says with a smile. She often takes holidays to participate in the crisis unit and manages the other volunteers. She trains them and makes sure they take breaks and “are doing OK”, says Mr Deluz-Martineau. There are very few people who have worked at the CDCS who have never dealt with a particularly difficult situation and needed to take a step back. “This is the kind of situation,” he explains, “where it is important to know the people you work with. We’ve tested their limits and know what they can handle.

Working at the CDCS

Volunteering at the Crisis and Support Centre

Jérémy Royer works for the Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs and volunteers at the Crisis and Support Centre. He is part of the pool, a list of volunteers who can be called in to answer the hotline in the event of a crisis. For this former volunteer firefighter, commitment means something and it was only natural for him to give his time. In 2015, during the earthquake in Nepal, rather than waiting to be contacted, he reached out to say he was available. He still remembers the conversation. “They asked me if I was free at 6pm. I said yes and that’s how I started working the hotline.” Like all those who work at the CDCS, Mr Royer notes that it is important to be able to listen to those who call and to choose your words carefully to reassure them. But he also emphasizes that it can be difficult to deal with distress over the long term. “The unit manager may suggest you take a break, but you also need to know when to take one yourself. Get outside, go for a walk, get some air…

Ms Cluzeau agrees. “In the heat of the action, you lose your sense of time. When something really difficult happens or you start to get overtired, you have to be able to recognize what’s happening, go see your co-workers and remind them to take a break.” The hotline workers are indispensable for ensuring 24/7 hotline coverage at the CDCS.

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