Father William Hamilton, ATF chaplain, shared concerns about the first responders to the Newtown school shooting. "This is something human nature just should never have to see...Some of these individuals were there for 12 hours and more in the scene with these...poor victims." Small towns do not allow for much anonymity. "They know these kids. They know these teachers" (LATimes.com).
This tragedy will leave a permanent imprint. Chaplain Terry Morgan urges police officers he works with to give themselves permission to react. "It is ok at times like this to have [an] emotional side. Understand you may have to step away for a moment to shed a tear, and take a few deep breaths" (Officer.com).
When a state police officer witnessed a man shoot and kill a 3-month-old in Blossvale, NY, a team of peer counselors were brought together to help that officer and his department to cope with the tragedy. Utica Deputy Fire Chief Brendan Dunn is part of that area's Critical Incident Stress Management Team. The team helps responders to discuss what happened, the feelings it caused, and post traumatic stress reactions (WKTV.com).
Hopefully most individuals do not face traumatic incidents more than once in their lifetimes. According to Dunn, "For an emergency responder or the military, it may be a way of life." Training will help responders carry out their job functions, but it cannot make it easy to deal with trauma.
So what will help first responders confront their emotions and regain a sense of control? "Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD) can be a valuable tool following a traumatic event" (AAETS.org).
A critical incident is described on the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress website as one that changes a person's normal physical and/or psychological functioning. Some of the first cases of traumatic stress identified were caused by military combat. Short- or long-term crisis reactions can also be experienced by emergency responders and victims of traumatic crimes. Many agencies use CISD to manage grief and distress.
"Debriefing is a specific technique designed to assist others in dealing with the physical or psychological symptoms that are generally associated with trauma exposure. Debriefing allows those involved with the incident to process the event and reflect on its impact" (AAETS.org). "Defusing, another component of CISD, allows for the ventilation of emotions and thoughts associated with the crisis event" (AAETS.org).
The CISD Process
- Assess the impact of the incident on individuals.
- Identify issues of safety and security.
- Vent emotions and validate reactions.
- Predict, prepare, and plan for potential psychological and physical reactions.
- Review the critical incident and its impact. Watch for maladaptive behaviors.
- As closure, identify ongoing support services and build action plans.
- Assist with re-entry into the community or workplace.
This is a process that should be started within 24-72 hours of a critical event. According the the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation, the Connecticut Critical Incident Stress Management Team responded to Newtown on the day of the school shootings. "On Friday, December 14th, 2012, the CT CISM Team received a call shortly before noon, requesting assistance in dealing with what was a developing large scale event. A gunman had shot numerous adults and children inside the Sandy Hook Elementary School, directly adjacent to a fire house" (ICISF.org).
"Experts say first responders are surprisingly resilient, with the vast majority recovering from the stress of a horrific scene within days or weeks. But some will continue to have symptoms, and those people will probably benefit from some form of counseling" (ABCNews.com).
Gary Franz, Deputy Chief of Graham Fire and Rescue, talked about the grief, anger, and frustration his personnel felt after responding to an arson scene in which Charlie Powell, 7, and Braden Powell, 5, had been murdered by their father in Puyallup, Washington. "Our men and women are men and women," Franz said. "We don't have any super-human power against what everybody in this nation -- and particularly in this community -- are experiencing" (KOMONews.com).
"The department held what's called a critical incident stress debrief," Franz said. The people and first responders of Puyallup will never forget the Powell tragedy, but they have moved forward. Now Newtown has begun the long process of grieving and then moving beyond this crisis.
- Bailey, Pat, "After Witnessing Blossvale Tragedy, First Responders Deal with Grief," WKTV.com, 06-24-2010.
- Cohen, Lindsay, "1st Responders to Powell Explosion Struggling with Grief, Anger," KOMONews.com, 02-10-2012.
- Davis, Joseph A, Ph.D., "Providing Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD) to Individuals and Communities in Situational Crisis," AAETS.org, 1998.
- Hamilton, Fr. William, "Chaplain Describes First Responders' Grief," LATimes.com, 12-17-2012.
- International Critical Incident Stress Foundation, "Updates - CT CISM Team Response to Newtown, CT School Shooting," ICISF.org, 12-14-2012.
- Moisse, Katie, "Connecticut School Shooting: First on Scene Face Haunting Memories," ABCNews.go.com, 12-15-2012.
- Morgan, Terry, "Coping with Tragedy: The Newtown School Massacre," Officer.com, 12-17-2012.