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Mental Awareness to Enhance Preparedness

Athletes often hear, “Get your head in the game.” The same applies to preparedness. Without focused mental agility in any emergency management phase, especially preparedness and response, mistakes or subpar performance are likely. The challenge is knowing how to get in the game and be at peak performance during critical incidents and stressful days.

Elevating the Need for Mental Fitness

Emergency managers, public health officials, and first responders often stress the importance of physical fitness. Sustained operations can be exhausting, and good physical condition can aid the operation and overall well-being of the operator or responder. Emergency managers urge businesses and the public to be on their own for up to three days after a disaster. However, the same emphasis is not always on the well-being of those involved in the operations.

Improvements in physical health continue to gain momentum, but mental health efforts still lag. In many professions like the military, police, firefighters, etc., mental health can be a taboo topic. When discussed or planned for, it is usually in the context of the recovery phase through critical incident stress management. In other cases, the topic focuses on helping others, ignoring everyday mental complications that can cloud even the toughest life safety professional.

Being mentally fit takes some self-reflection, understanding, and perhaps research. Professionals should be encouraged to understand the importance of mental health, identify signs of struggle, and seek help when needed. Public safety professionals who spent endless days responding to emergencies like the Hawaiian wildfire, Hurricane Katrina, or COVID-19 had to mentally manage the anxiety and aftermath of what they did and saw. There are actions that these professionals can take before such stressful sustained operations to be more mentally prepared.

Implementing the M.I.N.D. Concept

Preparedness is about planning and being ready. It is time to add mental health to the preparedness plan. It could start slowly. With decades of experience in emergency management planning, I needed an easy way to remember to prioritize mental health personally and in the planning process. So, I created the M.I.N.D. concept. This acronym stands for Mindfulness, Intuition, Never Ignore a Potential Problem, and self-Discipline. Remember, being prepared takes an open and clear mind and the ability to process information without distractions. Shifting the focus onto others can neglect building the mental agility to prepare and respond.


According to Psychology Today, mindfulness is a state of active, open attention to the present. Perhaps a better definition of mindfulness as it relates to preparedness “is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.”

Like a component of situational awareness, this is a reminder of the importance of maintaining a mind free of clutter and distractions. However, preparedness professionals regularly consider possible outcomes, different courses of action, and even worst-case scenarios to be better prepared. So, simultaneously, they must deconflict and declutter their minds, especially in the preparedness and emergency planning stages. This balance can be challenging when current challenges merge with past experiences that perhaps did not go well. The constant media barrage and training demonstrate the importance of wargaming the “what ifs.”

From a holistic perspective, mindfulness reduces worry and anxiety about what might happen, which is tough to overcome in the preparedness business. Ruminating before and after an emergency can be extremely unhealthy and counterproductive.


Trusting one’s intuition could provide greater preparedness and increase overall mental strength. In 2010, psychologist Robin Hogarth wrote, “Intuition offers a reduction in cognitive load and the ability to respond instantly while providing confidence in our knowledge and decision making – even though it may defy analysis.” Often, people can overthink a problem, debate it, lose focus, ruminate, and then come up with the same initial conclusion based on their initial intuition. Although intuition cannot replace complex planning and problem-solving, which often need careful analysis, it should be a factor in decision-making. Overthinking can cause stress, irritability, and even poor decisions, whereas trusting the gut can move things forward much quicker without anxiety overload.

A quote by Rich Gasaway in his online article entitled Where Does Intuition Come From? reads:

It is amazing how many articles and videos I have watched lately in which they are talking about decision making based on “gut feel.” It is also disheartening how many first responders I have interviewed who have admitted to me that they have dismissed their gut feelings and proceeded to do things that resulted in bad outcomes.

Gasaway also quoted Albert Einstein, “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”

Never Ignore a Potential Problem

The assumption that someone else has reported, fixed, or updated a problem or plan can quickly become problematic. A minor problem does not always warrant immediate attention but requires action. Sometimes, that action is simply to delegate or write it on a to-do list for later. Ignoring can also lead to forgetfulness or the realization that something was neglected. Alternatively, immediately acting as soon as a task arises can be an unhealthy habit, with mixed priorities adding to feeling overwhelmed and anxious. Walking past a problem increases the potential that it can come back as a bigger, more time-consuming, and more stressful problem in the future.

There are benefits to accomplishing something, no matter how small, such as improving self-esteem or taking a quick break from a more stressful or pressing matter. In 2014, Navy Admiral William H. McRaven gave a commencement speech centered on the importance of making the bed every morning to begin the day with an accomplishment. Perhaps the same approach can help preparedness professionals do something simple to feel fulfilled, such as putting in a work order for a malfunctioning light or updating a resource spreadsheet.


Self-discipline is challenging for most preparedness, public health, and public safety professionals, especially knowing when to walk away, take a break, or even consider seeking mental health assistance. The benefits of critical incident stress management have become acceptable in the field. However, mental health counseling or mindfulness approaches such as mediating have not been as widely adopted as standard personal mitigation strategies.

Beyond mental health, the mental wellness concept should be an essential aspect of daily well-being to counter future anxiety. Wellness goes beyond losing weight, quitting bad habits (like smoking), and exercising. An active process and a holistic mindset, wellness is multidimensional: physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, social, and environmental. Each dimension is critical for maintaining a healthy body and mind.

Shifting the Focus Inward

Being strong and handling almost any situation are common expectations that preparedness, public health, and public safety professionals have for themselves and others in similar roles. However, these expectations are too high. By promoting self-care and seeking help when needed, professionals are better positioned to help others. The days of “walk it off” or “suck it up” should be a thing of the past. Shifting the focus inward and building greater mental resilience take time and practice, but it also means removing the stigma of getting help when the job is about helping others. Even heroes on the most stressful days have the right to go home healthy, strive for happiness, and ask for help when needed.

Andrew (Andy) Altizer

Andrew (Andy) Altizer has over 20 years of emergency management planning experience and another 10 years of planning experience in the military. He is the emergency preparedness coordinator for The Westminster Schools and a Criminal Justice instructor at Georgia State University. Previously, he was the director of emergency management at Kennesaw State University and director of emergency preparedness at Georgia Institute of Technology. He also served as the critical infrastructure protection program manager at the Georgia Office of Homeland Security. In the U.S. Army, his roles included inspector general, public affairs officer, artillery commander, and plans and operations officer.



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