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State Emergency Service volunteers:
An investigation into coping abilities and
adjustment strategies

The Australasian Journal of Disaster
and Trauma Studies
ISSN:  1174-4707
Volume : 2006-1

State Emergency Service (SES) volunteer members:
An investigation into coping abilities and
adjustment strategies following emergency activations.

Felicity Shipley & Kathryn M Gow, School of Psychology & Counselling, Queensland University of Technology, QUT Carseldine, Beams Road, Carseldine QLD 4034, AUSTRALIA. Email: k.gow@qut.edu.au
Keywords: SES volunteers; critical incidents; coping

Felicity Shipley & Kathryn Gow

School of Psychology & Counselling
Queensland University of Technology
QUT Carseldine
Beams Road
Carseldine QLD 4034


State Emergency Service (SES) volunteer members are a unique group of individuals who are often exposed to varying degrees of adversity. This study enquired into their individual utilisation of coping abilities and deliberate adjustment strategies following stressful and/or critical incident activations (call-outs). The main findings were that SES volunteer members utilised a range of idiosyncratic individualised coping abilities and deliberate adjustment strategies; that maladaptive coping was utilised the least amongst participants with only 19% of participants reportedly utilising this strategy; and specifically, that a majority of participants (88%) attempted to re-establish routine and control after activation. These results were consistent with the current literature for other emergency service responders.

State Emergency Service (SES) volunteer members:
An investigation into coping abilities and
adjustment strategies following emergency activations.


State Emergency Service (SES) volunteer members are a unique group of individuals who, in the course of their volunteer work, encounter many unpredictable environments and often work in extreme weather conditions. The structure of the SES as a hierarchical organisation provides support to volunteers, both pre and post activation, through its utilisation of a broad spectrum of educational and debriefing aids. However, in order to fully understand the demands placed upon SES volunteer members and their utilisation of coping and adjustment strategies, it is first necessary to understand the function and purpose of the volunteer role. This can be briefly summarised as the assistance provided by voluntary community members who aim to complement and assist the statutory services in responding to community and state emergencies and disasters.

The initial request and actual provision of assistance from SES volunteer members is referred to in this article as an “activation”. In response to such activations, SES volunteer members can be exposed to a wide variety of unpredictable and disorienting situations including road side accidents and/or car wreckages, acts of nature, and forensic searches. Additionally, when attending an activation, volunteer members can be exposed to chaotic, noisy, agonised and/or undignified sights, sounds and smells, as well as unfamiliar surroundings and dangerous rubble from buildings (Miller, 1995).

While exposure from activation environments may or may not evoke physical, social or psychological reactions within individual workers, Orner et al. (2003) state that the presence and severity of such effects is often mediated by other factors such as: their relevance to workers’ own personal history; fatalities and incidents involving children; multiple casualties; threat to the emergency responder’s own (or colleagues’) life; and incidents which attract media coverage.   

However, Orner (2003) additionally proposes that high coping and competence are the norm among emergency services staff and that it is their individualised, idiosyncratic use of specific adjustment strategies and coping styles that helps to maintain operational readiness and reduce or alleviate the psychological impact of critical incidents. In one recent study, Orner et al. (2003) utilised a three point self report questionnaire to identify the deliberate adjustment strategies utilised by emergency service personnel to reduce the psychological and somatic impact of stressful activations. Participant responses were subjected to a five-factor principal component analysis with five identifiable deliberate adjustment strategies including: “wait and see; rest and relaxation; finding relief from sensory sequelae; re-establishing routines and sense of control; and graded confrontation of distressing reminders” (Orner, 2003, p.1). These factors reportedly accounted for 41.9% of the total variance of scores for individual coping strategies.

The utilisation of deliberate adjustment strategies is also mentioned in research conducted by Regehr, Hughes and Goldberg (2002). These researchers cited the utilisation of deliberate adjustment strategies to be the most frequently described coping strategy utilised by their participants. Further, in discussing individual differences in coping, Carver, Scheier and Weintraub (1989) argue that individuals tend to adopt certain coping tactics and to retain these as relatively stable preferences.

In addressing the theoretical conceptualisation used to account for the individualistic and varied coping responses utilised by emergency workers, Paton and Smith (1996) refer to Schema theory which they utilise to describe how individuals perceive, process, accommodate and habituate atypical events and reactions they may have encountered at emergency scenes.

An alternative theory proposed by Lazarus and Folkman (1984) is the Cognitive Transaction Model, which claims cognitive appraisal and interpretation are mediating variables between the person-environment relationship (stressors) and that stress related outcomes are mediated by the level of perceived threat. A central notion of this model is that initially an individual will make a primary appraisal to determine the degree of threat. If this situation were perceived as non-threatening, then neither a coping response is activated, nor subjective stress experienced. If, on the other hand, the situation were perceived as threatening, a secondary process is activated in which current coping resources are evaluated. If perceived to be adequate, the coping responses are activated resulting in a decrease of stress. If, however, coping responses are deemed to be inadequate, coping is attempted but results in an additional experience of stress.

Additionally, Lazarus and Folkman (1984) distinguish between two types of coping: problem focused coping – which involves problem solving or doing something to alter or disrupt the source of stress; and emotion focused coping – which aims to reduce or manage the emotional distress response. Other typologies of coping are discussed within the literature; however, the majority of these tend to be represented, at least partially, by the problem and emotion focused typology introduced above.

As has been identified, there are many contributing factors and considerations regarding how emergency service personnel cope with the often unknown nature of activations. This research was designed to obtain detailed information regarding the use of coping abilities and adjustment strategies required as a result of such activations. The first research objective was to obtain frequency data on the extent of exposure endured by SES volunteer members attending activations. Secondly, the coping abilities and deliberate adjustment strategies, as utilised by SES volunteer members in response to activations, were investigated. Thirdly, we aimed to identify those characteristics which distinguished individuals who had adaptive coping abilities and adjustment strategies compared to those who did not. Finally, the fourth research objective sought to identify associations between demographic variables (such as age of volunteers, number of activations attended, and satisfaction from volunteer work) to enhance our understanding of the functionality of SES volunteer members.


This study included 84 Queensland SES volunteer members. Of the 400 questionnaire packages distributed, 84 (21.0 %) were completed and returned. The sample consisted of 60 males (71.4 %) and 24 females (28.6 %). The age of respondents ranged from 18 to 75, with a mean age of 44.93 years (SD 13.85 years). The length of volunteer membership ranged from 6 months to 38 years (M = 7.33 years, SD = 7.47 years). The number of activations attended over the previous 6 months ranged from 0 (none) to 182 (M = 4.40, SD = 6.63).

Background Questionnaire:

The questionnaire comprised 26 items and was utilised to obtain descriptive and qualitative information about SES volunteer members.
Deliberate Adjustment Strategies (DAS):
A measure of coping developed by Orner, King, Avery, Bretherton, Stolz and Omerod (2003) was utilised to identify patterns of psychological coping amongst SES volunteer members. No reliability data was reported within Orner’s study.
The Brief COPE scale (BCS):
Developed by Carver (1997), this scale was designed to identify coping reactions. The internal reliability of the BCS reports Cronbach alpha coefficients ranging from 0.50 to 0.90 (Carver, 1997).

Design and Procedure
Recruitment for participation was requested from SES volunteer members attending their regular weekly/fortnightly training meeting from the North, South, East, and Western Brisbane Districts; Pine Rivers; Caboolture; Darling Downs; Western Gold Coast; and Bribie Island districts.


To identify participant characteristics, a range of demographic variables were reviewed. The average number of volunteer members within local and district groups was 63.18 (SD = 40.00), but varied substantially with participant numbers varying between 2 and 323. In further describing the variability of district groups, 9 groups had less than 10 members and 14 groups had more than 200 members.

Participants had attended an average of 4.4 (SD = 6.63) activations in the previous 6 months, with 71.4% of these participants indicating they were on-call at all times. By means of a rating scale (where 1 = “not at all stressed” and 10 = “very stressed”), participants reported low (M = 4.07, SD = 2.40) subjective levels of stress due to activation and high (M = 7.94, SD = 1.74) levels of satisfaction from their volunteer work.

In describing the nature of volunteer activation, community support (85.7%) and minor storm damage (79.8%) were the highest attended activations, whilst mild grass fires (20.2%) and boat rescues (22.6%) were the lowest (but still significant) attended activations. Table 1 displays the degree of environmental exposure (recorded as frequencies and percentages) encountered by participants whilst on activation.

Table 1. Frequencies and percentages of environmental exposure encountered during activation

(N = 84)
Damage to housing
Damage to infrastructure
Motor vehicle damage
Injury to self
Injury to fellow member
Injury to known victim
Gruesome injury
Aid seriously injured adult
Aid seriously injured child
Observe serious injury to child
Exposure to death/dying

Note. F = frequency; P = percentage

Figure 1 displays the percentage of engagement in utilising deliberate adjustment strategies post activation. As can be seen, participants reportedly engaged in a number of deliberate adjustment strategies. However, the strategy of re-establishing routines and control post activation demonstrates a slightly higher frequency of engagement compared to the other strategies.

Figure 1. Deliberate adjustment strategies utilised by participants

In order to identify broad categories of coping within the current dataset, Carver’s (1989) suggestion of second order factor analysis was utilised. This produced three factors identified as: adaptive coping, maladaptive coping and coping through the use of humour. In this instance, the use of humour, as a coping ability, referred to making jokes about the incident and making fun of the situation (Carver, 2004). The third factor, humour, was clearly distinguishable from the other two factors and had a loading of .83. The single factor, rotated, loadings and communalities are listed in Table 2 in descending order of the factor loading.

Table 2. Principal factor analysis loadings and communalities for the Brief COPE scale

Brief COPE item description   Factor Loading Communality
Adaptive Coping    

Active coping


Emotional support


Institutional support




Positive reframing




Self distraction





Maladaptive Coping



Self blame


Behaviour disengagement


Substance use


The utilisation of various coping abilities is recorded in Table 3. As can be seen, SES volunteer members were least likely to engage in maladaptive coping strategies, with 81% of participants stating they did not utilise this coping ability. Furthermore, their engagement in adaptive coping strategies and the utilisation of humour varied in frequency with 77% of participants utilising adaptive coping “a little bit” or more and 58% of participants utilising humour as a coping ability at least “a little bit” or more.

Table 3. Engagement of coping abilities among SES volunteer members

  I haven’t been
doing this at all.
I’ve been doing
this a little bit.
I’ve been doing this
a medium amount.
I’ve been doing
this a lot.
Coping Style: F
Adaptive coping


23 45 54 20 23 0 0
Maladaptive coping 68 81 13 16 2 2 1 1
Humour 28 33 32 38 16 19 8 10

Note. F = frequency; P = percentage

A correlation analysis was conducted in order to identify relationships within and between various participant characteristics. As would be expected, age and duration of membership were positively correlated r (83) = .54, p = .000. It was interesting to note, however, that age was negatively correlated with humour, r (83) = -.37, p = .000. Utilising adaptive coping was relatively moderately correlated with satisfaction from SES volunteer work where r (83) = .31, p = .004. In examining the interactions between coping and deliberate adjustment strategies, adaptive coping was moderately positively correlated with the deliberate adjustment strategies of: rest and relaxation, r (83) = .44, p = .000; relief of somatosensory squeal, r (83) = .49, p = .000; and the re-establishing of routines and sense of control, r (83) = .32, p = .002 respectively.


Participant responses revealed that over the course of their volunteer work, QLD SES volunteer members were likely to attend activations they perceived as stressful. In doing so, they tended to utilise a range of idiosyncratic adjustment strategies and coping abilities. Correlation analysis identified significant interactions between adaptive coping and the deliberate adjustment strategies of: rest and relaxation; seeking relief from somatosensory sequelae; and seeking to re-establish routines and a sense of control; while maladaptive coping did not significantly correlate with any of the adjustment strategies.

The correlation between high satisfaction from volunteer work and the utilisation of adaptive coping strategies lends support to Anderson’s (2000) research which also reported a positive correlation between adaptive coping abilities and general satisfaction with work. Additionally, the present study endorses the emerging recognition of individualised and idiosyncratic coping abilities and adjustment strategies. For example, Orner et al. (2003) reported that the use of deliberate adjustment strategies accounted for 41.9% of the total variance within participants. One parallel between the current study and the findings reported in Orner et al. is that although the utilisation of deliberate adjustment strategies varied, participants most frequently sought to “re-establish routines and a sense of control” post activation. This study also supports research by Moran who argued that no single coping strategy is best; rather it is the repertoire of methods which, when used selectively and flexibly, are found to be the most effective in reducing post-incident stress.

Although not explicitly measured in this research, the current findings can be understood theoretically by Lazarus and Folkman’s (1984) Cognitive Transaction Model. It would appear, for example that, in general, SES volunteer members either did not appraise the situations they attended as threatening, or were able to utilise affective coping resources when activation environments (or their aftermath) were perceived as stressful. This was evidenced by the low levels of stress reported by participants and the high frequency of engagement in adaptive coping responses. Finally, as identified through correlation analysis, a moderate positive relationship was found between age and humour, suggesting that as the age of volunteers increased, they were less likely to engage in the utilisation of humour.

Future investigation into the response mode of volunteer appraisal of stressful situations may have some potential in terms of identifying suitable volunteer recruits. If it is possible to identify characteristics likely to be present in emergency service personnel, it may be possible to screen participants for selective placement during recruitment. Additionally, such research findings may also serve as an organisational guide for the inclusion of educational program material to be delivered to volunteers both pre and post activation.

In terms of methodological limitations, a potential limitation for this study concerns the reliance upon volunteer sample groups which can result in biased findings. Additionally, self report instruments are vulnerable to retrospective distortion by participants. Another limitation was the use of language within the survey measures and participant responses. The definition of terms such as ‘stressful’ and ‘critical incident’ were subjectively measured, thus what constituted a stressful or critical incident may have differed between participant responses and means that the terminology used may not necessarily identify with examples within the existing literature.

Another limitation, known within the literature, is that the emergency services culture may also affect participant responses. For example, to admit that an event was stressful may have been inadvertently interpreted by participants as evidence of weakness thus influencing disclosure of information. The culture may also influence willingness to participate in the study (Dean, Gow & Shakespeare-Finch, 2003). Taking these limitations into consideration, the results of this study should be cautious about generalising beyond the population of QLD SES volunteer members who participated in this research.

Future research
An objective for further research would be to further explore the range of coping factors employed by SES volunteer members. Orner (2003) was able to account for just under half of the strategies utilised by participants in his research. This begs the question of what, then, do participants additionally do to relieve post-activation stress; and how much does the organisational scaffolding of education, support mechanisms, and debriefing contribute to the overall utilisation of coping abilities and adjustment strategies when compared to the individual selection of strategies? Finally, it is apparent in the literature on emergency responders that other factors such as resilience, hardiness, and social support systems are mitigating factors which also contribute to our ability to cope. Again, attempts could be sought to explain the impact of these factors.

This study found that in response to stressful and/or critical incident activations, Queensland SES volunteer members were most likely to engage the use of adaptive coping abilities. Additionally, participants utilised a range of deliberate adjustment strategies to address the sequelae of post-activation stress. Although the findings of this study need to be interpreted cautiously (due to the methodological limitations previously identified), it adds to the emerging body of evidence that depicts emergency service workers as individuals who, when confronted with varying degrees of trauma and adversity, were able to utilise a variety of adaptive coping and adjustment strategies to overcome post-activation stress. It is hoped that the current research findings offer new and broader directions for future research.


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Felicity Shipley & Kathryn M Gow © 2006. The authors assign to the Australasian Journal of Disaster and Trauma Studies at Massey University a non-exclusive licence to use this document for personal use and in courses of instruction provided that the article is used in full and this copyright statement is reproduced. The authors also grant a non-exclusive licence to Massey University to publish this document in full on the World Wide Web and for the document to be published on mirrors on the World Wide Web. Any other usage is prohibited without the express permission of the authors.

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