In Conversation with William Tibbo

In Conversation with William Tibbo McGill University

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Home > McGill News > 2001 > Winter 2001-2002 > In Conversation with William Tibbo
In Conversation with Saeed Mirza

Bill Tibbo has spent a large part of his career helping people and companies recover from traumatic events. In September, he led a team of 50 social workers, psychologists and psychiatrists to New York City. They were among the many disaster response teams from all over Canada and the U.S. who counselled the people who lost family members and colleagues in the World Trade Center collapse. Tibbo says his group had the "honour" of debriefing some 2,300 people over the course of 15 days, an experience he calls "life-changing."

How did you become involved in leading a team to New York?

I had been working for a company called Family Guidance International that offers employee assistance services. FGI has a large body of corporate clients around the world. We knew that some of those companies would call on us, so immediately after the events took place on September 11, we began to set up a team. By about 11 o'clock, we had started to plan our intervention, and it was shortly after that that corporations began to call. The companies we were used to dealing with in New York City were primarily in the financial industry, so they were right down there at the World Trade Center.

How did you recruit people?

FGI has more than 300 therapists who have been certified for critical incident work. We started calling out, but we probably received 200 calls from them saying, "I want to help, use me." We put together 50 people and left on a bus because that was the only way we could travel. We left on Friday morning around 11 o'clock, and we didn't get in until 4:30 the next morning. We slept until nine and started working right away.

How were you able to get going so quickly?

We rely on our contact people a good deal to let us know what the area is like. The people who are on the ground in NYC would have given us some indication about the geography there, or what the communication is like. We wanted to have a command centre in a safer area, obviously, if there was one. So we actually set up a command centre in New Jersey and would transport ourselves to our various locations every morning. Eventually we moved into Manhattan.

Did you have any sense of what to expect?

Yes and no. We've gone into other disasters in the past. I took a team off to Turkey after the earthquake a few years ago, and we've gone to other disaster sites like plane crashes. So we're used to this. But what was different, obviously, was that this was the most violent terrorist act that we've seen in our lifetime in North America. None of us was prepared for that.

Do you employ different kinds of teams in different situations?

Yes. When we went to Kobe, Japan, after the earthquake, we recruited people who understand the language and the culture. There are different ways in which families deal with one another and have different expectations and work ethics. In New York, it's not at all uncommon for people in the financial field to work 14- to 16-hour days. We didn't need anyone with expertise in finance necessarily, but we did need people who had worked with big corporations.

Did you need to visit Ground Zero to get a sense of what people were coping with?

Yes, we did go, but we could only get within 100 or 150 yards. That was close enough to be able to witness the devastation. One of the key things is that we have to guard against too much exposure. So we may have had the team observing that for a maximum of about 15 minutes.

What were the days like for you?

I'd be lying if I told you that I didn't go through an emotional period. Being away from my wife and two children is never easy. But it's emotional also because of what we're exposed to, and because we work 19 or 20 hours a day for the first five to six days. Counsellors may be out there conducting debriefings from 7:30 in the morning until 6 at night and then we'll have dinner meetings. The administrative team will meet with some of the key personnel to work on plans for the next day. Meanwhile, there are a lot of corporate requests coming in and a lot of media calling us to do interviews.

How do you prevent your team from burning out?

We put teams in place for short periods and then circulate new people through. We were there for two weeks. People just can't take longer than that, otherwise they'll become a little drained themselves.

What does a debriefing entail?

It's not all that complex. As a matter of fact, after 13 years, I marvel at how simple yet how incredibly fruitful and productive it is for people. But it's not group therapy -- it's a group-facilitated discussion. If you can envision 20 people in a room going through what they've experienced. Giving the facts. They go through details of where they were, what they saw, and what they've experienced. And that is very significant. After a disaster situation one of the most important processes for any of us as human beings is to put together the puzzle pieces, because we don't understand exactly what happened. "What did you see?" "Well, I thought it was this." "No, what I saw was this." And so the debriefing has to begin with reestablishing the outside order of that puzzle.

What is the next step?

From there, we begin to get into the softer information. Talking about events from an emotional and physical perspective. They'd begin to talk about the terror as the buildings were coming down. And then what it was like after. "What was it like when you got home?" "How did your family respond?" And as they review that, you see people nodding. "That's right, that's what my family did." What's challenging to explain is that people will feel very normal. They might walk out of a tragedy and go home, then find that they're not eating, not sleeping, beginning to drink, having flashbacks. And they think they're going crazy. But if they sit in a debriefing and Bob across the circle says I'm having this and that occur, it means it's part of the human condition and not that they're nuts.

Can the aftermath of a natural disaster like a major earthquake be compared to September 11?

At the fundamental level, people's reactions are similar. They will have problems sleeping and eating, difficulty in concentrating and getting back to a functional level again. The "beauty" of the earthquake is that there's a definitive beginning and end, once it's determined that the aftershocks are over. September 11 is still not finished, because everyone is obviously concerned about more terrorist acts. And people will look for ways to retaliate. Or not always retaliate, but at least target whoever did this.

Presumably there's no guilt or blame attached to an event of nature.

In Turkey, for example, there was guilt involved. The reason 40,000 deaths occurred was because buildings were constructed far, far below standards so people were much more vulnerable. But it's a slightly different situation here. The feeling of responsibility is like a bouncing ball. Many people will feel it, at the government level, at the foreign policy level, but also at the corporate level. An employer might feel tremendous guilt: for having sent a work colleague from one particular office down to the tower for the day; for having a project extend longer than it should have in New York; for having sent someone in their place to work there; or at the time of the incident, having directed people to go in one area and not another -- that's a huge issue. So in that sense, there's some guilt.

Any other differences?

The other piece is anger. In earthquake situations or in natural disasters -- obviously aside from problems with poor construction -- who do you get angry at? Some people may be angry at God. Anger's not one of those things that is expressed as readily as tremendous sorrow or dealt with easily. In this situation, anger is like a free radical bouncing around from place to place looking for targets.

How do you get companies back in business after a disaster?

Part of a business continuation or restructuring plan is helping the administrators to understand the people part of it. So we consult with them when we get to that stage. The first stage is, for five to six or seven days, we will be dealing with the people and the emotional issues and the personal tragedies they've experienced. And then -- I don't think there's any definitive time line -- we'll sit down with the administrators and begin the dialogue about how we get people and productivity going. We help them to chart out a realistic understanding of personnel and business recovery. In the New York City situation, these businesses could not afford to have their entire workforce go through an episodic recovery. It sounds grandiose, but that's our economy they're toying with. These are people making million-dollar decisions, and if they are not able to do that work, it puts a lot of us at risk.

How did this experience affect you?

I would call it a life-changing experience, absolutely. Going into these situations always changes my perspective. It can be so inspiring because you often see people at their best. And, despite everything they're having to cope with, you learn just how amazingly resilient human beings can be.

Bill Tibbo is currently an independent consultant. He was interviewed by Diana Grier Ayton.

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