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Massage Today
December, 2001, Vol. 01, Issue 12

Healing Hands: More Stories from the Disaster Relief Efforts

By Editorial Staff

As this issue goes to press, exactly two months have passed since the horrific events of September 11 unfolded. Across the United States and the world, those events have changed people in ways that have yet to be fully realized.

In the massage community, countless individuals and organizations have reached out with every ounce of courage, compassion and resource to assist the seemingly interminable relief efforts in New York City, Washington D.C., and Pennsylvania. The November issue of Massage Today documented one such effort (see "Bringing Relief to World Trade Center Rescue Workers," on line at We also requested that you send us any and all details of other disaster relief efforts taking place.

The American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA) was one of the major massage organizations to provide significant assistance to the disaster relief efforts. In this issue, we've included two reports on their services in this time of crisis. The first documents the efforts of AMTA's Massage Emergency Response Team (MERT) at the three sites. The report, provided to us by the AMTA, includes discussion of the purpose and organizational authority of the MERT team, especially with respect to its function in accordance with local, state and federal emergency services. We received several e-mails from massage therapists who felt slighted by AMTA-MERT, claiming they had been "turned away" from disaster relief efforts. (Editor's note: You can read excerpts from one such e-mail at the conclusion of this article). This report from the AMTA attempts to respond to those complaints as part of a comprehensive portrait of the MERT role at the disaster sites.

The second report, submitted by Retta Flagg, Pennsylvania MERT coordinator, details her personal experience as part of the AMTA-Pennsylvania MERT team. We print both these reports in their entirety. It's important to note that these are but two of countless experiences and efforts across the country, but no doubt they are reflective of a common spirit of true commitment and giving inherent to the massage therapy profession.

AMTA MERT Response to the September 11 Terrorist Attacks

Submitted by Ron Precht, Communications Manager, AMTA National Office

The cataclysmic events of September 11 put an incredible physical and emotional strain on the heroic rescue workers who desperately tried to save lives, and then, as hope faded, recover the remains of the approximately 7,000 victims of the disasters.

Perhaps no rescuers in history have worked under such horrible conditions, and AMTA is proud that AMTA's Massage Emergency Response Team (MERT) volunteers played a significant role in giving massage to the emergency workers. Responding to such an extraordinary national crisis presented unique challenges for everyone, including AMTA. Specifically, it presented challenges to AMTA's communications, supervision of AMTA programs, and most certainly to the personal feelings of massage therapists.

Within 24 hours of the disasters, AMTA's Executive Committee quickly authorized $20,000 to help train and mobilize AMTA MERT volunteers in the three states affected. This included sending national MERT volunteers to train members in New York, Pennsylvania and nearby states, that had not yet established their teams.

Each of the disaster sites presented unique situations, documented as follows:


The AMTA Virginia Chapter MERT was trained a month prior to the attacks and had established a relationship with the state's Emergency Medical Services (EMS). EMS contacted the AMTA VA MERT coordinator by 5:00 p.m. on the day of the disasters and requested the AMTA VA MERT be mobilized and deployed to the area near the Pentagon in Arlington, VA.

The first AMTA MERT volunteers arrived onsite at 3:00 a.m. September 12. Eight AMTA Virginia Chapter MERT volunteers provided chair massage to firefighters, police officers and other emergency rescue workers in the rehabilitation area, away from the perimeter of the crash site. The Virginia EMS controlled where the MERT volunteers were located and how long they could work. Their regulations meant that the MERT volunteers could only work a maximum of a 72-hour shift at the location. After that, the first team was sent off-duty and another group of newly MERT-trained volunteers took over. About 3 days after initial deployment to the rehabilitation area, the FBI moved some MERT volunteers close to the Pentagon recovery area.

The AMTA VA MERT was onsite through September 24, with 80 MERT-trained members participating. Among them were AMTA members from 10 other states who traveled to Virginia to help, including 8 from Iowa who had been deployed in the spring of 2001 with the AMTA Iowa MERT as a result of major floods in their state. AMTA MERT volunteers gave more than 3,000 massages at the Virginia site.


Beginning the morning of September 19, six AMTA Pennsylvania Chapter MERT leaders were mobilized when the FBI requested their presence at the crash site. The Pennsylvania Chapter had not yet held responder training, so the leaders and an AMTA MERT national representative went to the site. They were deployed there for three days, working in 2 four-hour shifts, giving 150+ massages to FBI agents and other recovery workers. Though their deployment was short, it had a profound impact. The Pennsylvania Critical Stress Management Team Leader wrote to the AMTA National Office praising the good work of the PA Chapter MERT and stating that their services will be requested in the future.

New York

The AMTA New York Chapter had not held MERT training before the terrorist attacks. They quickly organized training, as did AMTA Chapters in neighboring states. More than 250 AMTA members from New York, Connecticut and several New England states were trained as Team Leaders and responders September 15-18. After training was complete, the AMTA NY Chapter MERT was available to the various emergency agencies working in New York City. Beginning September 19, the AMTA NY Chapter accepted a request from the New York City Police Department to deploy to five locations in the City. The NY Chapter invited MERT-trained volunteers from Connecticut to join them. The American Red Cross formally invited the AMTA NY MERT to the area near Ground Zero on September 23. They are still operating at this site. MERT volunteers are working 8-hour shifts and average 144 massages per shift. Nearly 200 AMTA MERT-trained volunteers from 14 states have assisted the NY Chapter MERT response.


The AMTA Massage Emergency Response Team is an AMTA Chapter program, supervised by Chapter Boards and their appointed leaders. National AMTA MERT Committee volunteers are responsible for training and providing policy and procedural guidance to AMTA Professional-classification members in chapters who wish to support a MERT. These same national MERT volunteers also may assist in establishing logistical and/or liaison support for newly established teams.

The AMTA MERT program is designed so each AMTA Chapter MERT establishes relationships with national, regional, state, and local emergency management agencies to follow their protocols in case of disasters. An AMTA Chapter MERT works with those agencies and waits for them to request the team's help. This ensures that AMTA members don't get in the way of rescue, recovery and relief efforts and establishes the valuable support that massage therapists can provide in emergencies. Once they are requested by an agency and deployed, an AMTA MERT follows the direction of the relief agency or other official agency (such as the FBI) that invites them to the site, using their MERT training to provide a structured and helpful response. AMTA has had many requests for information about becoming part of AMTA MERT. You can participate as a MERT-trained volunteer if you are an AMTA Professional-classification member. If you aren't an AMTA member or if you want to upgrade your membership to participate in AMTA MERT, just contact AMTA at 847-864-0123 or apply through AMTA's website (

Some AMTA members, as well as other massage therapists, have worked and are working near the disaster sites. In particular, before the AMTA NY MERT was deployed, individual massage therapists offered their help in New York City.

Some massage therapists were turned away from AMTA MERT locations, because they were not MERT-trained AMTA Professional members. Because of the relationships the AMTA Chapter MERT program establishes, each MERT coordinator has to ensure that the MERT deployment goes as stated in our Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the agency involved. At the Pentagon site, some massage therapists were turned away by the Red Cross or the FBI, because the Virginia EMS insisted that only massage therapists they called should be in the restricted area. At all disaster sites, AMTA MERT volunteers work under the direction and protocols of the umbrella emergency agencies. So, at AMTA MERT sites, supervision is always under emergency management agencies. AMTA regrets the feelings of well-meaning massage therapists might have been hurt by being turned away from assisting at disaster sites.

Neither AMTA nor AMTA MERT are charitable organizations. So, neither financial contributions nor contributions of materials are tax-deductible. AMTA has a MERT sponsorship program that members and non-members can support financially. Sponsorships will be used to help defray costs associated with the emergency efforts and excess funds will be used for future MERT efforts. Gifts to AMTA MERT through the sponsorship program are the only way AMTA can legally handle donations. AMTA has received thousands of dollars this way through the AMTA Web site. Likewise, gifts of materials for MERT sites are being coordinated by the AMTA National Office, to ensure that materials arrive where and when they are needed. The relationships the AMTA MERT program has established with the many emergency management agencies and the outstanding efforts of AMTA volunteers to respond to the disasters will benefit the entire massage therapy profession.

My 9/11 MERT Experience

Submitted by Retta Flagg, Pennsylvania MERT Coordinator

Imagine doing chair massage on a man wearing a gun on his hip that looks like a gun that Clint Eastwood would carry around in "Dirty Harry," while you are working about 300 yards from the scene of a mass murder. Imagine waking up in the morning and going off to negotiate a massage contract with the FBI. Imagine doing chair massage in an airplane hanger with the smell of burnt clothes and charred flesh hanging in the air.

These are not the everyday experiences in my massage practice, but they became a reality for me when the AMTA Pennsylvania Massage Emergency Response TeamTM (MERTTM) was deployed to the Flight 93 crash site. While the AMTA MERT training prepared me quite well for negotiating with the FBI and to fit into a tightly knit security protocol, there was nothing that could have prepared me for the emotional impact of working at that disaster site. An important component of the MERT program is the stress debriefing and follow up care of the team after the deployment.

My heart goes out to all the people who worked in the September 11 disaster without the support of a well developed team behind them. There are three things that I will carry with me always from my experience at the Pennsylvania crash site. After my first view of the impact site of Flight 93, there was a hole in my heart about as big as that hole in the ground. After we worked on the FBI at the airplane hanger as they sorted through the "evidence," the memory of that smell lingers along side the hope that I will never experience that smell again. Lastly, my most profound memory of the experience is the look on the people's faces as they got up off our chairs. It was a look that reflected a sense of renewal and hope to continue on doing a very difficult job under very difficult circumstances. That look was the payoff for all our hard work and sacrifice to be there. Editor's note: The following is exerpted material from several e-mails sent to us in recent weeks; we've included them in this article in lieu of a "We Get Letters & E-Mail" section. We felt it important to present a variety of different perspectives on the relief efforts, be they positive, negative, or somewhere in between.

Massage Today hopes that the scope of information presented in this article, and any discourse it may spur, enables the massage community to continually enhance and refine emergency response efforts to best serve the public.

Dear Editor:

I have a long-established practice. I live in Arlington, three miles from the Pentagon. My partner of three years is a fire buff, and I've absorbed a good deal about the fire service, both generally and locally. Therefore, although I am no longer an AMTA member and so ineligible for "MERT," I volunteered independently at area stations during the Pentagon operation -- I simply called as soon as I had time free and asked if I could help at the firehouse. There was enthusiastic response and much gratitude. I'm sure it helped that I have been made acutely aware of firefighters' working conditions and attitudes to their work.

A week into the incident, I encountered student therapists dispatched to the firehouse by an Arlington County staffer who attends a nearby accredited massage school. I called her office and asked where I could be of the most use; she sent me to a hotel near the Pentagon where she was making arrangements to serve FEMA and other workers who could not be served onsite by the MERT team, or who preferred to be served offsite. My understanding was that she had previously offered personnel to MERT, and been told that her workers could not go on the scene, so she sought space at the hotel.

When I arrived, I was directed by a desk clerk to the MERT "Command Post" on the hotel's first floor; I explained why I was there, and asked where Arlington was working. You could have cut the condescension in that room with a knife. The spokesperson's only question was whether I was an AMTA member -- not whether I had received MERT training, or had a security clearance, but whether I was an AMTA member. I said I had been for many years but was no longer, but that politics seemed irrelevant right now and that I was in that location because Arlington had sent me to help out. She replied that she was sorry, but I had to be a member to help out because this was an "AMTA operation." I repeated that I was not proposing to go on the fire site with MERT, only seeking the place in the hotel where Arlington was situating therapists under the county's own auspices. I was told that sorry, no one knew anything about that. Period, end of paragraph. It was clear that I was dismissed.

In short, showing up at the scene of a disaster and offering services, I was not asked what my experience was (14 years full-time professional), whether I had any special qualification (familiarity with the emergency services), or any other professional membership/insurance (ABMP) or licensure (local and state). I was not offered any encouragement or advice about how and where else I could legitimately help (it was only lucky I already did know). I was merely invited to leave because I was not an AMTA member. Even if it turns out that Arlington dropped the ball as far as circulating information about its effort, this is an amazing attitude.

At the last moment, another woman in the "Command Post" piped up that she knew something about the Arlington operation and even had a phone number, but that she was sure I could not reach anyone there at six in the evening. She pushed her card into my hand and asked me to let her know if I found someplace to help out. I went straight to the firehouse nearest the crash scene and worked on police until 11 that night.

I do not like to sound as if I am trashing MERT as a whole. Their operations in Oklahoma City inspired my long-standing resolution to serve in the same way, if I were ever able to be available at a time and place of need. I am sure MERT helped many, many people at the Pentagon and will continue to do so as stressful times continue. Still, I remain astonished at the territoriality of AMTA members. Since you recommended that therapists wishing to help in crisis consult MERT, (Editor's note: Please see Cliff Korn's article, "Massage in Times of Crisis," in the October 2001 issue, available on line at I wanted you to know how one person making such a "consultation" was received.

Karen E. Murray, LMT
Arlington, Virginia

Dear Editor:

The Swedish Institute coordinated massage volunteers helping rescue workers following the criminal attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. The Swedish Institute's website reports that over 1000 massage therapists from around the nation volunteered their time and efforts. Both the Swedish Institute and these wonderful volunteers are to be commended. During this disaster, which was of a magnitude never imagined, many people from all professions and walks of life gave of themselves with no recompense and are also to be commended.

My question is for the lesser emergencies. The AMTA has MERT teams in place for MTs to volunteer to "help the helpers." I believe that is their motto. However, the helpers are often paid professionals: firemen, policemen, doctors, EMTs and the like. Why is it that MTs are only considered if they volunteer in an unpaid role? I think this further diminishes the stature of the profession; MTs are only considered when their services are given away for free. I think the massage profession is too eager to be recognized, and I think this eagerness is counterproductive. It sets up the public mind to expect free service. This does a tremendous disservice to the massage professional who (in New York) must spend almost $20,000 and almost two years of hard work and foregone earning to get licensed.

Oscar Abraham, LMT
Brooklyn, New York


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