Researchers study the impact of fires on children

Sometimes it is necessary for scientists to observe how we respond to problems in order to learn how to help us in the future. That is what two Virginia Tech psychologists are doing to determine how to help children respond to disasters.

In addition to the loss of a home and favorite possessions, a fire can have a long-term negative impact on children and their families. "Not only does it lead to depression and anxiety, but it can sometimes result in post-traumatic-stress disorder," says Russell T. Jones.

Jones and Thomas Ollendick bring many years of research together to study the impact of residential fires on children, adolescents, and their parents, with the eventual goal of developing treatment programs for the victims of fires. Jones' research has been primarily to help children avoid being injured in a fire; Ollendick has been doing research on anxiety disorders in children.

Jones' has assessed the impact of disasters on children, including those affected by wildfires in Santa Barbara, Calif., and Hurricane Andrew. He and his graduate students have determined that two factors enabled children to learn and retain skills for safely evacuating a burning building:

From that research, Jones developed and teaches an intervention strategy called Rehearsal-Plus that can be used not only with fires, but with other emergency responses such as dialing for help, performing CPR, and refusing drugs.

In his research on anxiety disorders, Ollendick has worked with children who have experienced such traumas as the death of parents, an automobile accident, or a significant loss, such as a severe injury.

Ollendick and Jones are conducting their research in several cities, including Blacksburg, Roanoke, Danville, Lynchburg, Charlottesville, Martinsville, and Richmond. They are interviewing people aged 8-18 who have been in a fire in which there was loss of at least 25 percent of the home.

The researchers will determine what happened during the fire and the level of trauma the victims experienced. Six months later and one year later, they will interview victims again to determine the path of recovery, or how they have responded to the situation. "We will look across ages and across time." Jones explains.

The researchers will look at whether the victims developed post-traumatic-stress disorder, fears and phobias, generalized anxiety disorders, depression, or other symptoms of psychopathology. They will determine the degree of exposure, or how close the victims were to the disaster, and the amount of loss, which has an impact on the degree of negativity of the response to the situation.

Jones and Ollendick also will look at the relationship between the way the parents function during the trauma and the way the children function. "If parents respond poorly and develop symptoms," Jones says, "likely the children will."

Jones knows that children who have been involved in a fire frequently have difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep. They may have nightmares about the event, relive it in their minds, have flashbacks, become startled more easily by certain events, or become hypervigilent. They may avoid the scene of the fire and even people associated with the event. They may be more irritable and have outbursts of anger. They may have difficulty concentrating. Some suffer intense psychiatric distress.

"It can also bring a loss of self esteem if they feel there are things they should have done and didn't do," Jones says. "They didn't know what to do. I think the research that has preceded this is so important because people don't know what to do in fires and blame themselves for injury and loss resulting from those fires."

Jones has taught children as young as age three - as well as those in high school, the elderly, the mentally handicapped, and the blind - what to do in case of fire. "But I would like to do it more systematically," he says.

While knowing what to do is extremely important, treatment after a fire is also important, Jones says. He is a member of the American Psychological Association committee that plans to write policies to ensure that children who have encountered a disaster will receive appropriate treatment.

Documenting the consequences of fire-related disasters on children and their families will enable Jones and Ollendick to develop better treatment strategies to help the children and their families recover from the fires. The National Institute of Mental Health has awarded the Virginia Tech psychology professors $1.2 million to conduct the research.

Written by Sally Harris
College of Arts and Sciences

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