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Launch of the CPD guidance on social work roles undertaken during disasters

Joe Hanley, Brunel University London

A full day conference looking at the role of social workers in disasters will be taking place on the 2nd of December 2019 in Birmingham, organised by BASW. As part of this conference, new CPD guidance on training social workers in working in disasters will be launched. In this blog I will introduce this guidance and how explain how it fits into broader efforts to enhance the role of social workers in this vital area.

Following a gas explosion in 2013 that left two people dead and several others injured, an email was sent out to all social workers in a local authority adult’s team I was working in at the time. The email asked for volunteers to visit the site and to support those impacted. Following the initial shock of hearing of the incident, the response from the team became one of confusion and puzzlement. Statements heard included “what are we supposed to do?” and “the people probably aren’t eligible”. As a social worker in the team at the time, I must admit that I shared these thoughts, and realise now that I felt uncomfortable stepping outside of my well comparatively well-defined local authority social work role.

I didn’t realise it at the time, but this team response was actually an indication of a wider national issue: social workers are not always prepared to respond to disaster situations effectively. Following the events of 2017, a year that included the Grenfell Fire, the Manchester Arena Bombing, the Westminster Bridge attack and the London Bridge attack, the need for a more clearly articulated role of social workers in disasters became all the more urgent. While the responses to these events exhibited some amazing and inspirational social work practice, they also exposed a lack of systematic preparedness and training for social workers who are called upon to support people in this instances.

Following the events of 2017, the BASW Social Work in Disasters Working Group was formed, and has been actively seeking to clarify and support the role of social work in disasters ever since. The working group has brought together academics, social work leaders, social workers with experience of working in disasters, people impacted by disasters and other professionals with expertise in this area, all to share their experiences and knowledge, and to shape the future direction of social work in disasters. One of the key achievements of this working group has been the development of the statement on the role of the DASS and social workers in disaster recovery.

Several events have been organised to bring together social workers and people who have been impacted by disasters to share their experiences, most notably conferences in Manchester and Durham. The expertise and experiences shared at these events cannot be understated, demonstrating some exceptional examples of practice, while also highlighting some urgent areas for further development.

It has become vital at this stage to examine how this momentum can be carried forward in order to make tangible improvements to social work in the area of disasters. This has led to the development of national CPD Guidance on Social Work Roles Undertaken during Disasters, utilising the expertise of the working group, the knowledge shared by social workers and those impacted by disasters, and integrating existing research and evidence in this area.

The CPD guidance covers three core areas: knowledge and understanding, evaluation and analysis, and skills and application. Aspects of practice that are highlighted include the importance of self-care, prioritising the perspectives of those who have been affected or impacted by disasters, and reflecting on the wider contexts, causes and implications of disasters. 

In order to demonstrate how these various capacities are relevant to social work practice, the guidance is mapped against the Professional Capabilities Framework and the Knowledge and Skills Statements. It is envisaged that this guidance will be a small but significant initial step towards a nationally coordinated and consistent approach to the training and development of Disaster Informed Social Workers. Some ideas for how this ongoing role can be established are also shared in this guidance, including the potential for creating a register of disaster informed social workers.

Returning to the example of the 2013 gas explosion, it is thought-provoking to consider what an alternative response could have looked like. Instead of an email going to all staff, social work managers know who in their team is trained to respond to disaster situations, and even the names of social workers in neighbouring local authorities should additional support be required. These social workers then visit the site or sites of the disaster, and recognise their colleagues from contingency planning and the local resilience forum, immediately putting in place the plans that have been developed in conjunction with these other professionals, while also having the confidence and knowledge to discuss the unique aspects of this particular disaster and the appropriate coordinated response to be taken. Disaster Informed Social Workers would then draw upon relevant theories, research and the wealth of experience social workers have in this area to work with their colleagues in developing creative and ethical responses to the particular circumstances, providing both short and long term support for those impacted. Moreover, these social workers could provide this response confident that systems are in place to support them, with an effective buddy system, cover for their day to day caseload, sufficient space for self-care and reflection, and anything else that may be required.  

One of the most inspiring aspects of being part of this working group over the past two years has been hearing the stories of social workers who have responded to disasters, and the examples of excellent practice that these professionals have exemplified. Social workers deserve systems that match this excellent practice with excellent support and training, and this CPD guidance is a significant step in that direction.

There are still places available at the Social Work in Disasters Conference 2019 on the 2nd of December, where this guidance and the next steps will be discussed in more depth, alongside a number of other important topics.

CPD guidance on social work roles undertaken during disasters