Steve Crimando presents the "Psychology of Disaster" at League of Municipalities at fall meeting

Renowned disaster and trauma trainer Steve Crimando speaks to members of the Sussex County League of Municipalities during a dinner meeting at the Mohawk House in Sparta on Thursday, Oct. 18, 2018. (Photos by Mandy Coriston).

By Mandy Coriston
The Sussex County League of Municipalities held its fall meeting on Thursday evening, Oct. 18 at the Mohawk House in Sparta. Representatives of most of the county’s 24 municipalities attended, as well the heads of county agencies and local police and fire leadership. Sussex County Freeholder and former Hopatcong Mayor Sylvia Petillo also came to the meeting, which included a three-course dinner and a presentation by keynote speaker Steve Crimando, a disaster and trauma training expert with the New Jersey Department of Mental Health. Crimando has more than 30 years of experience in handling the psychological aspects and aftermath of natural disasters and terrorism, and he delivered a program entitled “The Psychology of Disaster."
Sparta Police Chief Neil Spidaletto looked forward to Crimando’s presentation.
“I’ve heard him speak at other events,” Spidaletto said, “And he is always a terrifc speaker. He really captures the audience, and his topics are timely.” Wantage Township Fire Department Chief Justin VanderGroef and Office of Emergency Management Supervisor Joe Konopinski were excited to hear Crimando speak, as well.
“We think he’ll give us insight that can really help us do our jobs,” Konopinski said.
Freeholder Petillo was also anticipating a strong presentation from Crimando.
“He really helped me out during (Superstorm) Sandy when I was still in Hopatcong,” Petillo said. “My office was chaotic, and he came in, calmed us down, and gave us the skills to handle the crisis.”
She also praised the leadership of the League, which reincorporated last spring after a two-year hiatus.
“They’re doing a good job,” she said. “Everything is well-organized and the speakers they bring in are really relevant.”
Dinner was served while roll was called and a brief treasurer’s report was given. Crimando was introduced by League of Municipalities President and Sparta Councilwoman Christine Quinn. He began with a short film about the 9/11 attacks, entitled “Boatlift," a retrospective on the captains of private and public watercraft banding together to evacuate people from Lower Manhattan during the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.
After running the film, Crimando focsed on the need for preparedness, practice, and assessment.
"What we see in disaster movies isn’t an accurate representation of how people behave in times of disaster,” he said, “What you need is an accurate assessment of how your town will react in a disaster situation.”
Crimando said it’s crucial that towns have hazard-specific plans in place that are feasible, actionable, and well-practiced. “You need to respond with savvy and sensitivity,” he said, “and if you’re not rehearsing, you’re setting yourselves up for failure.”
Pointing out that this generation of leadership is the first to deal with ubiquitous social media, Crimando emphasized the importance of communication.
“You can’t ‘un-scare’ people once they’ve heard or seen all the bad news,” he said. “But we can use the rapid spread of information to our advantage. You have to remember that our single greatest asset is neighbors helping neighbors.”
Crimando urged his listeners to think about how they communicate with the public during times of crisis. “Remember you may be competing with social media,” he said. “So be calm, be clear, and keep your messages simple and easy to understand.” He also said repetitiveness is important, because most people’s working memory doesn’t function very efficiently under great stress. He noted that it’s also important to be calm and empathetic, and to help people feel in as much of control of the situation as possible.
Addressing the issues of trauma and post-trauma disorders, Crimando said there are critical distinctions.
“Separation from loved ones is the biggest source of stress in disasters,” he said. "People who are upset in the throes of a crisis are not necessarily going to develop PTSD, but are experiencing a trauma reaction from which most people will recover on their own. Post-traumatic stress comes later, and needs to be properly addressed with trauma counseling.
Mental health therapy and trauma counseling are not one and the same, according to Crimando.
“The purpose of psychological therapy is to create change,” he said, “But the last thing people need (during trauma) is change. Helping people get back to baseline as quickly as possible is the best in the interest of long term recovery.”
This is especially important in cases where people have developed avoidance behaviors in the wake of crisis.
Crimando closed emphasizing it’s also important that they take care of themselves and their colleagues during times of disaster.
“Errors increase when we’re tired,” he said. “So make sure your people are taking breaks and managing their own stress.”
League President Quinn was thrilled to have Crimando speak. “We have 24 municipalities, and we all face the same issues. We don’t want to try and solve these problems 24 different ways,” she said. "Each meeting focuses on a topic that affects the whole county.”
Quinn was also appreciative of Mohawk House owner Steve Scro for giving the League a place to meet. “When we were putting the League back together, we needed a venue, and Steve really stepped up,” she said, “The success of this group is driven by community support and support from our elected officials, and it’s been a great journey so far. I’m thankful and really excited for 2019.”
In addition to Quinn, the Sussex County League of Municipalities is led by Vice President and Sussex County Chamber of Commerce Trustee Jacqueline Espinoza, Secretary and Wantage Township Manager Debra Millikin, and Treasurer and Registered Municipal Accountant Tom Ferry, and includes membership from all twenty-four towns.
Renowned disaster and trauma trainer Steve Crimando speaks to members of the Sussex County League of Municipalities during a dinner meeting at the Mohawk House in Sparta on Thursday, Oct. 18, 2018.
(Photos by Mandy Coriston).

Members of the Sussex County League of Municipalities watch a film during a presentation by disaster and trauma training on Thursday, Oct. 18, at the Mohawk House in Sparta.

(L-R) Sparta Police Chief Neil Spidaletto, Mohawk House owner Steve Scro, SCLoM Secretary Debra Millikin, Sparta Township Prosecutor Jonathan McMeen, SCLoM President Christine Quinn, and SCLoM Treasurer Tom Ferry at the Mohawk House on Thursday, Oc. 18, 2018.