Spectrum Logo
A non-profit publication of the Office of the University Relations of Virginia Tech,
including The Conductor, a special section of the Spectrum printed 4 times a year

Grant will enable study of fire victims

By Sally Harris

Spectrum Volume 19 Issue 17 - January 23, 1997

The National Institute of Mental Health has awarded two Virginia Tech psychology professors a $1.2-million grant 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.

Russell T. Jones and Thomas Ollendick brought many years of research together to qualify for the grant. Jones has been doing research in this area for 20 years, primarily helping children avoid being injured in a fire; and Ollendick has been doing research on anxiety disorders in children for a number of years.

From their previous work, Jones and Ollendick know that a fire can have a very 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," Jones said. "We want to examine it more systematically. We're trying to find out what the phenomenon is so we can treat it. If we don't know what it is, we can't treat it. Few people have systematically studied this area. It's kind of innovative."

Jones's past work has included assessing the impact of disasters on children, including those affected by the wildfires in Santa Barbara, Cal., and Hurricane Andrew. Through his research and that of his graduate students, Jones determined two factors that enabled children to learn and retain skills for safely evacuating a burning building.

The first factor, self-regulatory processes, meant that children who were taught to monitor, evaluate, and reward their performance in such situations performed better than those who were not given that skill. Second, those children who were encouraged to talk about the rationale for certain behaviors, make associations between previous information and the information they were to learn, and to ask questions about the new information were more likely to retain the evacuation skills.

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 in an emergency, performing CPR, and refusing drugs. He has used the strategy in the psychology clinic for the successful treatment of victims of residential fires. He also enlarged his work to include the assessment of childhood stress and coping, and he has also consulted with such groups as Burger King, ATT, and the American Red Cross in the development of fire-safety procedures.

Ollendick's research on anxiety disorders in children includes the development of a fear-survey schedule for children. He also has been working on children's reactions to various situations by looking at their fears and anxieties in relation to the events they experience. He 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.

In addition, Ollendick is doing a long-term follow-up on aggressive and withdrawn children and those with anxieties to see how they adjust. He and Jones have worked together on research dealing with anxiety and fear associated with functioning during fire emergencies.

Ollendick's interest in anxiety disorders in children, the fears they experience in these unexpected events, and the long-term effects of those events of research, plus Jones's research into teaching children how to deal with a fire emergency and assessing the impact of disasters on children, will merge in the new NIMH grant research. For that research, they will target several cities, including Blacksburg, Roanoke, Danville, Lynchburg, Charlottesville, Martinsville, and Richmond, and will interview 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 from the event. Six months later and one year later, they will interview them again to determine the "trajectory of recovery," Jones said, or how they have responded to the situation.

"This will be a cross-sectional, longitudinal study," Jones said, "looking across ages and across time."

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--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 said, "it's likely the children will."

From previous research, Jones knows 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 with children if they feel there are things they should have done and didn't do," Jones said. "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."

As a graduate student, Glenn Holmes, an associate professor of education, developed, as part of his dissertation, a computer game teaching children what to do in fires. Also, Jones has gone to schools and taught children as early as age three--as well as those in high school, the elderly, the mentally handicapped, the blind--what to do in case of fire. "But I would like to do it more systematically," he said.

While knowing what to do in case of a fire is extremely important, treatment after a fire is important, also, Jones said. He is a member of the Disaster-Resolution Implementation Steering Committee of the American Psychological Association, which plans to write policies to ensure that children who have encountered a disaster will receive appropriate treatment.