Vol. 76, No. 4Panel discussion

How can police forces best recover after a crisis or disaster?

Credit: RCMP

The Panellists

  • Barbara J. Schmalz, Ph.D., R. Psych., RCMP divisional psychologist, Calgary, Alta.
  • Dr. Juha Järvelin, program manager, Finnish Police Post Critical Incident Seminar Program, Finland
  • S/Sgt. Roberta McKale, District Advisory N.C.O., Eastern Alberta District, RCMP

Police agencies plan and train extensively to be ready to respond to a serious incident, be it an active shooter, a terrorist attack or even a natural disaster. But how well do they deal with these physically and emotionally draining events once the worst is over? We asked our panellists for their take on how an agency, a detachment or an individual can best recover in the aftermath of a crisis.

Dr. Barbara J. Schmalz

A number of different police incidents will evoke reactions in police officers, individually and collectively. While emotional reactions are not uncommon, significant crises can have an intense and unexpected effect.

Despite a high level of functioning and mental toughness, police officers are still very much human, with their individual personal circumstances, history and capacity for empathy under the armour.

The first stage of recovery from large-scale or serious police crisis events begins with education and awareness: identify what's going on with yourself, listen when you're told what to expect, and accept that it's normal — even for trained and resilient police officers.

Begin with the body's foundation by taking care of basic physical needs — food, drink, exercise and sleep, when possible. Don't expect to be functioning at full capacity. Expectations need to be scaled back.

There's a physical exhaustion that will eventually come from both the intensity of a crisis and from an intense emotional reaction. Once the adrenalin dump happens, then the emotional waves will follow, be it fear, anger or grief. It's important that individual officers have fewer expectations and demands placed on them — by themselves and the workplace.

Connecting with a support system, be it colleagues, close family members or peer support, can be a life line for many after a crisis. Family members will need to receive the same information and education provided to the police officer about what to expect in the days, weeks, months and even years following the crisis.

Spending time in areas of your life that haven't been directly exposed to the event is strengthening, but loved ones will need to understand what may be happening with you. Ongoing assistance to family is often important to reduce the impact of secondary/vicarious reactions from the crisis.

Organizational support following a crisis is important for officers' future occupational health, morale, job performance and satisfaction. Beginning with arranging critical incident debriefings and other resources when appropriate, a supportive work environment can often be the one positive recollection that police officers talk about long after the crisis. It can be pivotal in regaining resilience and the motivation needed to get back on the career path.

The long-term impact of a crisis will be evident on a number of levels, for an extended period of time. There will be ripple effects on family (on-duty injury or death), communities (flood, fire) and then the police officer will go back into the line of fire. While there's often time to recover and regain energy in the short term, the job will continue, bringing with it the possibility of another significant incident or crisis on that next shift.

The most effective recovery will occur in those who enter the crisis event in strong emotional and physical shape, when their lives are balanced and satisfying. If parts aren't healthy going into the event, the impact will be worse, and recovery prolonged.

Crisis events will often bring with them a clear message: nurture all aspects of your life, including relationships, keep things balanced and you will be less impacted over time and much better prepared for the next big event.

Dr. Juha Järvelin

The Finnish Police has learned a lot after the Kauhajoki School shooting on Sept. 23, 2008, in which 11 people died.

What have we learned?

Our experience after the shooting taught us that there has to be defusing or debriefing following such an incident. We know that for most of the officers, the defusing and debriefings offered were enough to help them to cope after the event. However, there will be officers who need more psycho-social support.

After these kinds of critical incidents, we need to make sure that no one's left alone. If there's an officer who has no one with him or her at home, we shouldn't let this person go home by themselves. Our experience is that if they do, there's a very high risk of an officer suffering serious problems and being very stressed out. There's also a risk that the signs of potential post-traumatic stress disorder will be missed.

In the Finnish Police, it's mandatory for officers to attend arranged defusing and debriefing meetings. When it's mandatory, no one has to think about what their fellow officers will think or if attending will be seen as a sign of weakness.

After Kauhajoki, the peer support and one-on-one discussions with peers was the most effective way to support our officers. We have now started to create a Critical Incident Stress Management model and a program for peer support.

In Finland, we use peers at defusings, at debriefings and in one-on-ones. If that isn't enough, we try to use police-friendly mental health professionals. These mental health professionals understand at least the basics of police work and a law enforcement officer's way thinking and acting.

We started the Post Critical Incident Seminar (PCIS) Program in the Finnish Police in 2012. Before then, we had nothing else to offer after the debriefing. The PCIS is based on the FBI and South Carolina Law Enforcement Assistance Program models. We have had very good results and every officer who was a member of the action team in Kauhajoki has taken part in PCISs.

In a nutshell, the Finnish Model ensures that first responders are taken care of in the aftermath of a crisis. Defusing the same day, debriefing within 24 to 72 hours, peer support (one on one) and after that, if needed, by trained psychologists who understand police work. The PCIS seminars should take place after six months.

Arranging the substantial aftermath actions is part of good leadership. The main goal is to take care of personnel and to secure their ability to work. With these occupational mental health and safety protection measures, money can also be saved.

There should be an external co-ordinator to facilitate the aftermath actions and ensure that all of those who were involved are taken care of. The follow-up procedure must ensure that everyone who's been in a critical situation in their work receives the help they need.

S/Sgt. Roberta McKale

Here are a few tips I've gleaned from exposure to member support in the 2011 Slave Lake, Alta., wildfire disaster and the 2013 High River floods.

In Slave Lake, the local Victim Services Unit was evacuated from the community and sent to registration centres just like every other citizen. There was a lack of communication on how to make this service accessible to assist the members, families and the community. Victim Services wasn't deployed from the onset of the disaster, and this was a lesson learned. Victim Services has volunteers who can offer local information and support networks, and who have an existing relationship with the detachment.

When the flooding disaster in High River, Alta., occurred, the first thing the Member Wellness Team did was bring in Victim Services to support our members and their families, and plan for the long-term response for the community. The Member Wellness Team moved fast to get supports in place and liaised VSU with the Red Cross team. This allowed for a strong co-ordinated exchange of information and tapped into existing supports.

Members and their families are looked to as examples in a community. They have the added pressure of working through a disaster, then facing the consequences of how the community reacts in the recovery phase.

Removing members from active roles can be stressful for a detachment, but it's paramount that members take the time they need to piece their lives back together. It's a balance that really needs to include psychological support from health services, along with leadership to monitor the team.

Members want to be working in their community to help. However, citizens who react negatively under stress can compound emotions for members. I witnessed that at our front counter in Slave Lake when a citizen yelled at a staff member that they couldn't possibly understand the pressure of losing a home even though the member being yelled at had lost their home. This member remained calm and professional, but the toll is debilitating over time.

If services are available for the police forces, it's best to tap into them. An example of this is a disaster involving the Red Cross in which police officers, like other citizens, can register for support. Registering allows people to tap into services, information and training that's crafted to support the recovery.

The Red Cross and Victim Services Unit in Slave Lake after the wildfire disaster provided specialized programs and support to the detachment families. Information key to the recovery was provided through these services, and members and their families had access to specific courses and benefits for months after the incident.

One thing I've learned is that members are not fast to ask for help. Finances are stressful to discuss, but having those open supportive conversations with members and having access to a number of internal programs can be the difference in making an effective recovery.

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