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Together we are stronger

Q+A: Why first responders need post incident debriefings

30 Aug 2017 6:25 AM | International Public Safety Association (Administrator)

By Amy Morgan, IPSA Mental Health Committee Member

Ms. Amy Morgan was a 2017 IPSA Webinar Week instructor. Hundreds of public safety professionals attended the event Why first responders need post incident debriefings. The IPSA selected the top questions by the audience and Morgan responded.

Q:  Is the level of resiliency one has based on the degree of trauma suffered or the extent to which they had grit and hope throughout the process? In other words, is my ability to bounce back based on how much trauma I suffered or how prepared I am to deal with trauma in the first place?

A:   I talk about being prepared and strong, so that your resilience is higher -- that is a contributing factor. If you're already strong in your three primary areas of health (mental, emotional, physical), then the trauma will be less likely to “knock you down” than it would be if any or all of those areas is in a weakened state. It's important to get and stay strong in your overall health, so that you are better equipped to manage trauma when it happens.

It’s not the amount of trauma suffered, but what you've done to help yourself heal from trauma, that matters most. If you experience trauma on a regular basis, let's say once a month, then you have a difficult job. Each time you take the efforts to manage the experience through debriefing, and using resources for healing and recovery, then you will be better equipped (mentally, emotionally, physically) to face the next trauma and the after-effects of the traumas will be lessened for you.

But someone who experiences these ongoing (cumulative) trauma experiences and does nothing to heal from them, then his or her overall health will be weakened a bit more each time they go through the next trauma experience or event.

Q:   I work in 911 telecommunications and just listened through a violent act. What are some quick ways that I can decompress before answering the next call?

A:   You may only have moments after one difficult call before you must answer another one, and if you don't decompress or perform any healing exercises, then you will take all your reactions from one call right into the other, and they will compound. 

If you have the time and ability, then "debrief" yourself. There is a workbook that I created on debriefing exercises that you should use and write down your own answers if you have no team or group to go through the debriefing with. You should write about your plan to handle this type of call and write about the reality of how you handled it.

Document the things you did right and well and want to repeat. Then note the things you want to improve on or find ways to grow better at. Then write about your reactions and thoughts on the experience. Write out the things that you may be experiencing later, after your shift or even days or weeks later, because of the experience you just had.

Option 1: If you have only moments, and you have only yourself (no team debriefings), it’s much better to try to do something rather than nothing. I suggest creating a quick a few sets of note cards, and use a set each time after a call. For each set of eight cards write: 1) Plan; 2) Reality; 3) What went well; 4) Growth area; 5) Reactions; 6) Thoughts; 7) Later to watch for; 8) Resource. Then, while you’re on duty, use one line for each answer and run through the set quickly.

Option 2: If you have even more time, try writing longer answers or journaling. Identify now resources that you can use later during your off-peak hours. You can take your note cards or journal with you as things to discuss. 

Option 3: If you only have 30 seconds between calls and don't have time to for option one or two above while you’re on-duty (do those things later though), close your eyes, breathe slowly and think of the positive perspective of how you just helped with the situation; focus on that until your next call. 

Q:   Do you think it better to discuss what we witness with our spouses or loved ones or is it better to shield them from what we see?

A:   This isn't really a "one answer fits all" question, but in my opinion, this could actually be very beneficial for a marriage, for a couple to talk about what one is experiencing related to trauma, but I say this with a caveat – it would be beneficial for the couple, together, to use the post-trauma resources and heal together. 

If you go home after a shift and tell your spouse about all the difficult and horrible things you saw all day, and leave them with that information – remember the descriptors of trauma, then they could then have their own trauma reactions by hearing about the experience and by having a loved one that went through it. 

It's great to have someone supportive and understanding to share your experience with, but then you've passed a trauma along to them, which I believe is your concern, and so the solution is to share the healing. 

Sharing the healing process with your spouse could have the same effect it has on the response team. It could make you more cohesive, put you on the same side because you are now sharing the same perspective of the events (and the job), and it could also help both of you find ways to manage your reactions and fears going forward. 

Building strength and resilience together, and being prepared together for the potential events that may happen, will strengthen your ability to face those things as they come and to share the healing from them when they do.

Q:   What is the number to the suicide helpline, and is it OK to call it if I’m just feeling depressed.

A:   The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number is 800-273-8255 (TALK) and it is available 24/7.  The people who answer this line are well trained to listen, no matter why the caller is calling.

Not only are they trained to talk someone through their thoughts of suicide and to help and to provide resources and support, but they are also trained to just listen and be a supportive shoulder to lean on while you're going through something difficult. 

If you've just had an especially bad day and you need someone to share that with, call the number. Their whole purpose and goal is to listen to what you have gone through and help provide whatever support they can. 

Anyone, of any age, at any time of day, in any occupation, can anonymously call and have someone on the other end of the phone who is ready and willing to hear what you need to talk about.

About the Author

Ms. Morgan is an instructional designer, trainer and strategist via Academy Hour, a training provider offering courses to law enforcement, first response teams and business groups. She is pursuing a Doctorate of Education degree with a specialization in curriculum and teaching, has earned a Master's degree in Counseling, and holds a Bachelor's of Science in Behavioral Sciences. She previously served as the Training Officer for the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, and as an Instructional Systems Designer and Trainer for the Federal Aviation Administration.

Ms. Morgan writes/publishes therapy resource workbooks & training materials, and serves as a subject matter expert and presenter of leadership & mental health training sessions for the International Public Safety Association. Ms. Morgan also serves as a curriculum developer and instructor of mental health courses for the Council on Law Enforcement Education and Training in Oklahoma. She is a certified trainer for Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST), and is trained as a QPR (Question Persuade Refer) trainer as well as a Crisis Prevention Institute Non-Violent Physical Crisis Intervention trainer. Additionally, she is Oklahoma Supreme Court certified as a civil mediator, and she has achieved Mensa membership status.

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