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First responder mental health trauma support: Lessons learned from the San Bernardino attack

19 Jul 2017 6:51 AM | International Public Safety Association (Administrator)

By Lieutenant Tim Murphy, Paso Robles (CA) Police Department, IPSA Memorial Committee

Everyone in public safety recalls the terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California on December 2, 2015.  The suspects in this attack were responsible for killing fourteen innocents and wounding another twenty-two. After they fled the scene, these suspects were ultimately located by law enforcement and engaged in a dramatic shootout, which resulted in their deaths. Fortunately, only two police officers were wounded in this culminating event. 

The public safety professionals who responded to the initial attack, and the final apprehension of the suspects, all performed in the finest traditions of our profession. They faced a daunting task:

  • Responding to the 9-1-1 calls of an active shooter at a public building.
  • Managing victim care.
  • Securing a large office building to make it safe for EMS and crime scene investigators.
  • Dealing with the massive response of public safety personnel from throughout the region.
  • Keeping the public informed and interacting with the media.
  • Managing all the uninjured victims and witnesses.
  • Locating the suspects.

Their courage and selfless acts in the face of life threatening danger and chaos are commendable. In public safety, practitioners often focus on the response.  

  • How did we respond?
  • Did we follow accepted tactics, techniques and procedures?
  • Did our weapons and ammunition perform as expected?
  • Did our communications systems function under maximum load?

Sometimes in the overwhelming rush of work that needs to be accomplished during and in the day following an incident, however, we forget about the most important component of our response – safeguarding our own people.

  • How are they doing?
  • How are they processing these traumatizing events?
  • How is our organization responding to their needs?

While the public safety profession has made significant improvements in this concept over the last twenty-five years, improvements can be made. We must always seek new opportunities to improve our response to employee trauma support.

There is no doubt that many of the first responders were traumatized by the San Bernardino attack. The multiple agencies involved completed after action reports and followed their debriefing protocols to assist their employees in dealing with this trauma and stress. Individual agencies are commended for their efforts.

The 2016 DOJ COPS Office publication Bringing Calm to Chaos is an excellent review of the public safety response to this terrorist attack, from the incoming 9-1-1 calls to the after-action reports and debriefings.

This report is a valuable resource and I encourage all public safety professionals to make the time to read it. The report examines every facet of the public safety response to these events, including lessons learned about ‘Post-event responder and victim welfare’.  There are five key takeaways from this part of the report:

  1. Post-event victim and responder welfare should be an integral part of inter-agency planning, training and exercises (page 108).
  2. Ensure your department has a policy regarding mental health support after critical incidents and clearly communicated to the entire department (page 108).
  3. Assign a mental health or officer wellness incident commander to oversee officer mental health and coordinate services among participating agencies (page 108).
  4. Compel participation in critical incident debriefings or post-incident counseling both for victims and civilians and commissioned staff (page 108).
  5. Consider follow-up counseling as it is not unusual for post-traumatic stress to manifest itself several weeks or months after an event (page 108).

In addition to mental health assistance, consider unit, team, or department level debriefings to bring closure to the event (page 108)

We are all aware that events like the terrorist attack in San Bernardino traumatize our first responders.  It is important to remember that everyday events that we routinely deal with can have the same impact on our personnel. 

A horrific car crash, an officer involved shooting, a structure fire with casualties and natural disasters are all examples of incidents that could traumatize one of our own. This trauma can create significant issues personally and professionally for our people. It is our responsibility as leaders to take proactive steps to provide our first responders with appropriate mental health trauma support.

For further reading on these topics, I encourage you to read 2016 report titled Preparing for the Unimaginable: How Chiefs Can Safeguard Officer Mental Health Before and After Mass Casualty Event – another DOJ COPS Office publication.

About the Author

Tim Murphy currently serves as the Support Services Commander at the Paso Robles (CA) Police Department. He is commander of the San Luis Obispo Regional SWAT Team and holds a B.S. Degree in criminal justice from California State University (Sacramento) and a Master’s Degree in Justice Administration from Norwich University. During his 27-year career, he has served as a field training officer, motor officer, detective, and SWAT operator.

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