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IPSA's Public Safety Column

The IPSA's Public Safety Column is an opportunity for our members and corporate sponsors to provide thought leadership articles about all topics facing public safety. 

The articles we publish are not necessarily the views of the IPSA, rather they are opinions shared by each contributor.

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  • 28 Oct 2020 9:58 AM | International Public Safety Association (Administrator)

    By Heather R. Cotter, International Public Safety Association Executive Director

    Editor's Note: This article reprinted with permission of Police1

    It is well known that there is an obesity epidemic in America. According to the National Institute of Health, more than one-third of adults are obese. It’s a serious issue that plagues the law enforcement profession due to long hours, working variable shifts and high stress.  

    One study by the FBI estimated that more than 80% of American cops are obese. This threat to officer safety requires action. Getting started is tough – making a lifestyle change requires a shift in mindset – but it is not a fight police officers are destined to lose. There are some easy steps that every cop can take to improve their physical health – from nutrition to activity. It starts by self-reflection, acceptance and dedication to making lifestyle changes that will benefit the officer’s overall health.  

    Here are four fitness habits that all police officers must adopt to improve overall health and fitness. Before beginning any new workout program, you are highly encouraged to get a physical exam from a medical doctor.

    1. Alternate Workouts

    It is imperative cops work out regularly each week, especially given the demands of the job. While there are several types of workouts, the fundamental rule is that fitness should include a balance of two types of workouts: cardio and resistance. The workouts must vary because repetitive training often results in overuse injuries and possible boredom.

    Beginners or individuals who have not worked out in the last 30 days should start slow to build up physical endurance. Intermediate and advanced fitness enthusiasts need to also add variety in their workouts to encourage new muscle growth, prevent overuse injuries and prevent burnout.

    2. Perform Cardio Exercises

    Cardio is meant to get your heart rate elevated and is not limited to one type of exercise. The CDC recommends a minimum of 150 minutes of cardio per week for all adults. This should be planned over several days throughout each week and the exercises should vary either per workout, per week or per month.

    Performing different cardio exercises often will prevent overuse injuries and prevent the body from adapting too much to a specific type of workout. The idea is to keep your body guessing to encourage muscle growth, maximize calorie burn and to challenge yourself physically.

    Cardio workouts include jumping rope (have you ever seen boxer skip – it’s awesome), cycling, kettlebell, running, jumping jacks (or other plyometrics), rowing and elliptical. All cops need to include cardio in their workouts. Variety is the key to making a lifestyle change.

    3. Incorporate Resistance Training

    All cops need to lift weights or engage in some type of resistance training. On average, it is estimated that up to five percent of muscle is lost every decade after the age of 30. Because of this, it is necessary to make resistance training part of your workout routine.

    A balanced resistance training program will target several muscle groups in the lower body, the core and upper body. Examples of resistance training exercises include bench press, push-ups, rows, pull-ups, bicep curls, tricep extensions, shoulder presses, lunges, squats, deadlifts and calf raises. Even yoga is a form of resistance training. This is by no means comprehensive, but it’s a good starting point. One of my favorite and often visited websites has a fairly comprehensive exercise database.

    4. Use the Correct Athletic Gear

    Workouts require different types of athletic gear. For example, running requires running shoes, skipping (jump rope) should be done in cross-trainers, and every cyclist must wear a helmet. Compression socks or sleeves help prevent stress fractures and a yoga mat will help prevent a disastrous fall and keep you centered. Another piece of equipment that all cops should consider is the Fitbit or other fitness tracking devices. Fitness trackers encourage you to move and they hold you accountable. While they are not 100 percent accurate, they are an excellent tool for cops to use when making lifestyle changes and tracking daily fitness goals.

    Fitness is a lifestyle change for many cops. It takes time to adopt the fitness lifestyle mentality, but after a couple of weeks of implementing a dedicated routine, it becomes a habit.

    All cops need to make fitness a part of their routine and fight the obesity epidemic. A cop’s level of fitness can mean the difference between life and death on any given day.

    About the Author

    Heather R. Cotter serves as the Executive Director of the International Public Safety Association, a 501(c)3 non-profit. She’s been working with public safety professionals for several years and understands the challenges agencies and resource constraints agencies continue to face. Heather has a Master's degree from Arizona State University and a Bachelor's at Indiana University, both in Criminology.

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  • 28 Oct 2020 9:38 AM | International Public Safety Association (Administrator)

    By Heather R. Cotter, International Public Safety Association Executive Director

    Editor's Note: This article reprinted with permission of Police1

    No city wants to experience civil unrest, but all law enforcement agencies must have a preparedness strategy in place should one transpire.

    Law enforcement, fire, EMS, hospitals, emergency management, public works and faith-based organizations must be together at the table discussing the policies and procedures that should be in place when an event occurs. Interagency participation is critical for departmental-wide buy-in, training and response. Collaboration is critical to preparedness, response and restoration.

    It doesn't matter what triggers the event, whether it's an officer-involved shooting, presidential election or the outcome of a sporting event, it is law enforcement's ability to respond and restore that will have the greatest impact on community and officer safety.

    While this is not a comprehensive list of issues, these are all policy discussion points that should be addressed within your municipality.

    1. Arrest Teams and Jail Considerations

    During civil unrest, law enforcement agencies should have plans in place for arrest teams. The plan must include how the arrest teams will be deployed, how they will communicate during mass arrests, where to take the arrestees and how they will be transported.

    Before deciding to activate arrest teams, agencies must have an understanding of current jail capacity and inmate housing and security required at alternative locations.

    2. Mutual Aid

    Since there are no jurisdictional boundaries when it comes to civil unrest, agencies should have mutual-aid agreements in place with allied emergency responders.

    Having agreements in place with your neighboring jurisdictions and state, whether the agreements are formal or ad hoc, is the best thing you can do to help preserve your community's safety. The agreement should be revisited continually.

    3. Unified Command

    Unified command is a key component to effective multi-agency or multi-jurisdiction response. Law enforcement agencies should expect there to be modest communications barriers at times but ultimately rely on trusting the tactical and agreed upon decisions coming from the unified command.

    Operating a unified command is no small undertaking. There is an incredible amount of consensus and strategic deployment within the unified command.

    4. Equipment and Fleet Inventory

    Agencies must know the type of equipment and fleet available to them. Taking inventory of PPE is one thing, and making sure the PPE is suitable for first responders is another.

    Agencies should make sure that masks are fit tested. The current condition of all body armor should also be considered. Also, law enforcement should prepare for equipment failure and vehicle tires to be slashed. An inventory of available helicopters and drones should also be added to this list.

    5. Cyber Disobedience

    Protestors are fueled with emotion and their actions are unpredictable. They are adaptive and technologically sophisticated. Agencies should prepare for cyber disobedience.

    Hackers may infiltrate public safety systems during incidents, deface websites and swatting may occur. Law enforcement agencies should discuss these probable scenarios and have a mitigation strategy for expected cyber-attacks.

    6. Social Media

    Social media can be a blessing and a curse during times of unrest. It can be a powerful and useful tool that provides community members with rapid updates on safe zones, and it can make bad news worse when public outcry goes viral. Social media can intensify a situation in a matter of minutes and being prepared to assess a rapid reaction is not an easy task.

    Another consideration for departments is that there are individuals out there who may feign illnesses or suggest there is a lack of law enforcement response to lower the perception of your department. Establishing a social media plan, specific to civil unrest, will help safeguard the community and the officers on duty. Planning for deception will aid in your response.

    7. Calling in the National Guard

    In order to call in the National Guard, agencies must consider the logistics and identify multiple and possible locations where to post them. There are a number of variables to consider – from communications and interoperability to legal review of policy and standard operations procedures.

    8. Managing Calls for Service

    Life doesn't stop during a riot. Agencies must have a plan in place to manage the standard calls for service volume. Calls will continue to come for aid requests whether it's a vehicle crash or domestic violence call. Agencies must consider the call for service volume at the communications center as well as having a plan for routine response.

    9. Interoperability

    There has to be a communications plan in place for how agencies from multiple jurisdictions will communicate with one another in the field, to dispatch and what channels the different teams will be on during the crisis.

    In addition, it's important to recognize that agencies use different terminology. Make sure everyone is speaking in plain language or using agreed-upon terminology.

    10. Critical Infrastructure and Extra Security Detail

    Determine your city's critical infrastructure during times of civil unrest and how those areas will be secured. Hospitals, telecommunications, electricity, water, gas, transportation, safety shelters and alternative jails/inmate housing should be identified in your response strategy. Having a plan in place on providing extra security detail is vital.

    11. Work with Public Works

    Law enforcement agencies may not always think of public works during times of civil unrest, but there should be a regular dialogue.

    In most cities, public works removes graffiti; they should be communicating with you, especially if they notice any new graffiti during unrest as it may be an indicator of a possible threat. They can also bring in sandbags or other materials to act as barriers.

    12. Additional Considerations

    Several additional factors should be considered:

    • Safeguarding the community by not publicizing shelters.
    • Possible role abandonment, not necessarily from within the department, but from any allied emergency responder.
    • Have an inventory of less-lethal options and policies on when to use them.
    • Be prepared to spend a lot of time with the media as the event is unfolding, throughout the event and after the crisis ends.
    • During a crisis, it is common for cities to receive donations such as food, water, or financial contributions. Plan for how the donations will be managed.

    A civil unrest strategy must be developed with input from all emergency responders and allied stakeholders. Being prepared and understanding your department's resources, as well as its limitations, will help ensure your agency makes timely and informed decisions during a crisis.

    About the Author

    Heather R. Cotter serves as the Executive Director of the International Public Safety Association, a 501(c)3 non-profit. She’s been working with public safety professionals for several years and understands the challenges agencies and resource constraints agencies continue to face. Heather has a Master's degree from Arizona State University and a Bachelor's at Indiana University, both in Criminology.

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  • 06 Oct 2020 8:14 AM | International Public Safety Association (Administrator)

    By Sarah Guenette, Learning & Development Manager, Calgary Community Standards, IPSA Mental Health & Wellness Committee Member

    When discussing front-line mental health one group that is often overlooked are animal control officers. Yet the situations they face and the psychological repercussions of the work they do can be just as impactful as it is for law enforcement officers, firefighters or medics. It is important for all agencies to remember to include their animal control officers and municipal enforcement officers in their psychological health and safety planning.

    When thinking about the role that animal control officers play, most people probably visualize them chasing aggressive dogs with catchpoles. Dog bites and attacks are significant risks in the field and something that all officers need to be aware of, but there are many other situations that these officers are placed in that can negatively impact their psychological well-being.

    Violent scenes

    Investigating dog attacks on people, especially children, exposes officers to gruesome scenes. People may be permanently disfigured and sometimes the attacks are fatal. Unfortunately, these stories are common worldwide. Behind each one of these news stories is an animal officer investigating it. Attending sad and disturbing scenes can have a lasting impact for any front-line members.  

    Animal attack scenes are not the only situations that officers face that could affect them. Officers are often called in by law enforcement to attend scenes of homicide, suicide and decomposing bodies where the animals have been abandoned. These scenes are disturbing and dangerous because the animals involved are stressed and anxious about what’s going on around them and may lash out.


    Animal control officers face similar officer safety risks as other enforcement groups. They often work alone and some in rural areas where back up may be some distance away. In 2012, Canadian Peace Officer Rod Lazenby was ambushed, beaten and killed by Trevor Kloschinsky when he responded to an animal complaint call in a rural area. A provincial inquiry in June 2017 led to widespread changes to the peace officer program in Alberta to increase their safety.

    In November of 2012 California Animal Control Officer Roy Marcum was shot and killed by a pet owner in Sacramento. He had been called to remove pets from a home where the owner had been evicted. The owner returned to the home and shot Officer Marcum before barricading himself and having a standoff with police. There are sadly other examples like this. Like other enforcement officers, animal control members can find themselves in potentially high risk situations that they are not prepared for. The risk from people can be just as dangerous to them as the risk from animals, if not more.

    Psychological impact

    However, anger is not the only emotion that officers are faced with. They also deal with grieving pet owners, sad situations where animals need to be rehomed and cases where mental health issues have led to a horrible existence for owners and animals alike.

    It is well known that psychological issues in other animal care professions are increasing and suicide among vets has been declared an epidemic. Many of the categories of stressors applied to vets can just as easily be applied to animal control officers. Veterinary stressors have seen an increase in recent years –“--the importance of the human animal bond has significantly increased, placing pressure on vets in their care and treatment of animals and having to assist clients' grieving for lost pets. Having little training in the area of grieving clients and trying to be sensitive whilst working against the clock, leaves it extremely difficult for any vet to perform professionally under such strain.”

    In the case of animal control officers, the increased human animal bond in modern times creates two stressors. First, as mentioned above, responding to a call for service that involves someone’s animal can bring out heightened emotions in that person. Secondly, the officers may form a bond with an animal. Officers see animals in abusive, neglectful and hoarding situations. Seeing animals in such horrific environments may add to the ongoing chronic psychological stress of the profession.

    Some of the situations are very extreme with animals having to be euthanized. It can be disheartening for officers to see neglectful or abusive owners having their animals returned to them. Some of these cases are chronic and the officer has to return to the property themselves to deal with that person multiple times after they have acquired more animals. Animal hoarding is symptomatic of mental health issues on the part of the hoarder, but is also emotionally difficult for those rescuing the animals.

    Agency considerations

    Animal control officers face a combination of stressors, those from the animal professions like vets, and the other traditional first responder stressors. It is easy to see why animal control officers need to be a focus for agencies to ensure that they have adequate support programs in place for them.

    It’s important to ensure that officers have training in how to interact with the public, especially defusing potentially dangerous situations through verbal de-escalation and defending themselves physically if necessary. It should also include training in grief and loss to ensure the officers feel adequately prepared to engage with grieving pet owners.

    As with first responders, public and animal safety is the priority for animal control officers. Self- care and healthy processing of the emotions from an incident come last, as described by Officer Shirley Zindler: “I can’t be crying over every sad thing I encounter at work or I wouldn’t be effective. Whether I am confronting an angry gang member or a cranky housewife, I need to maintain a professional demeanour. When I scoop some poor broken creature up off the road after it has been hit by a car, I don’t have time to cry about it. I need to suck it up and get that animal to the emergency clinic as quickly as possible. When I’m prosecuting a cruelty case I’m all business. The tears come later, sometimes when I least expect it”(p. 175).

    Promotion of wellness programs, both physical and psychological, need to be undertaken by agencies to ensure that officers have information on healthy coping mechanisms to assist them in processing emotions coming out of incidents.

    Most importantly animal control officers need to receive the same psychological health and safety education and supports as all first responders. Especially critical is education on how to remain resilient and how to recognize symptoms of increasing stress. Employee Family Assistance programs and Peer Support teams should be something considered for any animal control agency or shelter. Understanding symptoms of increasing stress can help officers to recognize when they need some additional support. Providing this education and a support system also assists the agencies involved. Through supporting the psychological health and wellness of their officers, agencies will have a healthier workforce.

    Whether animal control officers are part of the local law enforcement agency or an independent agency, having a formal psychological health and safety program for them is critical. Even though they are often not included in the first responder category, the impact of their profession on their well-being needs to be recognized and addressed. They play an essential role in both public and animal safety and deserve to be adequately supported by the agencies they serve.

    About the Author

    Sarah Guenette, M.A., is the Learning & Development Manager for Calgary Community Standards. She oversees recruit training and continuing education for 9-1-1 call evaluators, bylaw and animal control officers, business licensing inspectors, livery inspectors and animal shelter services employees. Sarah has a background in 9-1-1 and was a call evaluator, dispatcher and operations manager for over 10 years. She has overseen the Psychological Health and Safety portfolio and the Peer Support team for Calgary Community Standards since 2013. She is passionate about creating and maintaining a healthy workplace for employees. Sarah is also the proud wife of a Calgary Police Service Officer.

  • 18 Sep 2020 9:42 AM | International Public Safety Association (Administrator)

    By Gregory L. Walterhouse, Associate Teaching Professor, Bowling Green State University, IPSA Member

    One of the primary purposes of government is defense of citizens and law and order. As Madison wrote in Federalist No. 54, “Government is instituted no less for protection of the property, than of persons, of individuals.” The physical attacks on law enforcement officers and calls for defunding the police from the criminal element and anarchists is not surprising. However, the lack of support for police by some mayors, legislative bodies and district attorneys, are unconscionable, considering police officers are the thin line between law and order and nihilism.

    Traditional versus emergency legislative process

    The design of our legislative process is for slow deliberation to counter “the common impulse of passion, or interest” of some citizens that are “adverse to the rights of other citizens or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community” as Madison wrote in Federalist No. 10.  

    However, in response to recent protests, many local and state governments have passed emergency laws limiting the tools available to law enforcement. Several of these emergency laws have been ill-considered reactions to demands by criminal mobs with little regard or input from the citizens who rely on law enforcement for protection, a majority of whom oppose defunding law enforcement. Further, many legislatures passed these laws without input from law enforcement.

    Even in D.C., Mayor Muriel E Bowser urged lawmakers to slow down and hold public hearings. The unintended consequence of emergency legislation can result in:

    1. A rise in crime.
    2. Mass retirements.
    3. Resignations of law enforcement officers.
    4. Increased caseload in the courts (because of ambiguous laws requiring judicial interpretation).
    5. Increased difficulty in recruiting and retaining police officers.

    In New York City, Mayor de Blasio recently signed a number of laws on police reform that the Mayor admits will make it harder for officers to do their jobs. Among other prohibitions, the laws make it illegal for a law enforcement officer to sit, kneel, and stand, on the chest or back in a way that could obstruct breathing. This law is open to wide interpretation and obviously enacted by persons who have never had to struggle with a suspect resisting arrest.

    Already, a number of cities and states are experiencing higher than normal resignations of police officers including Atlanta, Chicago, Milwaukee, New York, San Francisco, Colorado and others.

    Law enforcement resignations

    Compounding this problem is the resignation on many chiefs of police which not only include white males but female and minority chiefs potentially setting back decades of progress that has been made in promoting females and minorities to law enforcement top level positions.

    Though opinions differ as to the cause of the resignations, the result remains that this leaves police departments understaffed as the ability to recruit new officers is on the decline. Police departments have faced recruiting challenges in recent years but recent events including lack of support from state and local leaders, budget cuts, falling morale, loss of respect and increased personal liability from recently passed legislation have exasperated the problem.

    Symbolic legislation

    Some of the recent legislation is more symbolic than substantive. For example, many cities and states have enacted legislation that prohibits the use of chokeholds. However, many departments already had policies in place prohibiting chokeholds. Nevertheless, the legislation now raises the bar elevating the use of chokeholds to a crime compared to an administrative policy violation.

    Other legislation mandates additional training for police officers including training on anti-bias, de-escalation techniques, use of force, officer wellness and positive community interaction among others. Some states are also legislatively requiring all officers to wear body-worn cameras. While additional training and body-worn cameras have merit, these mandates are incongruent with calls to defund the police and require adequate state funding. If enacted as unfunded mandates, these requirements will burden small and financially struggling departments and are destined to fail.

    Other legislation mandates a "duty to intervene” requiring officers to act if they witness fellow officers using excessive force and be held criminally liable if they do not. Other legislation however is more onerous.

    Assaults against police, firefighters and EMS

    In Virginia, the Senate passed a bill along Democratic Party lines that allows judges to reduce the charges for assaulting a police officer from a felony to a misdemeanor. However, it does not stop there; the bill also allows judges to reduce the charges of those who assault firefighters or emergency medical service personnel.

    This will almost certainly diminish any deterrent effect the previous law had and increase the probability of physical assault on first responders. It is also peculiar that sentencing guidelines exist to provide uniform and consistent sentences across jurisdictions for those convicted of criminal activity, yet consistency and uniformity do not matter when police officers, firefighters and EMS providers are the victims of assault.

    Members of the Michigan legislature have also targeted firefighters along with law enforcement officers, by introducing a bill that if passed would remove limitations on civil actions against these public servants as individuals. Michigan is not alone, Colorado, and Connecticut have recently enacted laws making officers personally liable for damages if their actions are willful, wanton, or malicious or violate an individual's civil rights.

    A bill introduced in New York would require police officers to obtain personal insurance to cover civil liability suits against them. Removing the qualified immunity defense will make retaining and recruiting police officers more difficult and begs the questions why police officers who are called upon to make split second life and death decisions are not afforded the same legal defense as all other government employees.

    Legislation about less-lethal measures

    Others are limiting the tools available for police to control disturbances. Oregon HB 4208 signed into law prohibits the use of tear gas except in situations where police have declared a “riot” and further prohibits the use of sonic weapons known as long-range acoustical devices (LRADS).

    Seattle City Council prohibited police from using tear gas, pepper spray, foam-tipped projectiles or other force against protesters. New emergency legislation in the District of Columbia prohibits the use of chemical irritants or rubber bullets and stun grenades on peaceful demonstrators. Defining what constitutes a peaceful demonstration, however, is problematic considering the mayors of Seattle, Chicago, Olympia, and others have called disturbances, peaceful protests, even though scores of police officers were injured and extensive damage and looting of private property occurred.

    The coup de grâce to the siege on police are prosecutors and district attorneys in a number of cities refusing to bring charges against protestors including disorderly conduct, interfering with police officers, rioting looting and theft. These include the cities of Portland and Chicago, and a number of other cities including St. Louis, New York, Philadelphia and the District of Columbia. It goes as far as charges for possessing a loaded gun in a public place, resisting arrest and interfering with police dropped by the DA’s office putting back onto the streets a man that allegedly later shot and killed another man at a protest.

    Closing remarks

    As I write this, a gunman ambushed and shot two Los Angeles County Sheriff Deputies as they sat it their patrol vehicle. At the hospital, where the deputies were being treated, what the mainstream media referred to as protestors screamed, “we hope they die.” Make no mistake; these are not protestors but anarchists, with only the police standing between their attempts to destroy the fabric of American society and law an order.

    Emergency legislation enacted based on impulse and passion without the benefit of deliberation and collaboration from all stakeholders is not the answer. Neither is increasing civil and criminal liability for police officers that will make it more difficult to recruit and retain good officers.

    For the aggregate interests of the community, maintaining safety and law and order must be the top priority of government through deliberation and collaboration not impulse and passion. The police are not the enemy, and without them, the real enemy to a peaceful society will prevail.  

    About the Author

    Greg Walterhouse is an Associate Teaching Professor in the Department of Political Science at Bowling Green State University and teaches in the Fire Administration and Master’s in Public Administration programs. Greg holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Management from Oakland University, a Master’s degree in Legal Studies from the University of Illinois, a Master’s degree in Personnel Management from Central Michigan University and a Specialist Degree in Educational Leadership from Bowling Green State University. Prior to coming to BGSU Greg had over 35 years’ experience in public safety holding various positions. The author may be contacted at

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  • 14 Sep 2020 2:05 PM | International Public Safety Association (Administrator)

    By Jennifer Leftwich, Graduate Clinical Social Work Student, IPSA Mental Health, Fitness & Wellness Committee Member

    The public safety system evolves in perpetuity to meet the changing needs of communities. Many leading public safety agencies use a combination of empirical data and qualitative information to create standard operating procedures, inform best practices and aid in decision-making processes.

    Collaboration between human services and public safety professions, as well as ongoing emphasis on trauma-informed practices, are important in today’s climate. The current practices of contacting “on call services” post-incident referrals and operating in distant silos are no longer sufficient interventions.

    Globally, interdisciplinary mental health programs have proven successful as both preventative and responsive measures. They bring trained peers and professionals from different systems together to address the needs of individuals who interact with the 911 system. Current events continue to emphasize the need for these multidisciplinary programs and public safety agencies must continue to change their dynamic to address community expectations and priorities.

    What might this look like? To look forward, looking backwards is necessary.

    Gaps in the continuum

    When state hospitals that historically housed and treated mental health treatment consumers closed rapidly during the era of deinstitutionalization, a chasm formed in the human services system/continuum. Ineffective plans and underfunding contributed to increased homelessness and unmanaged serious mental health conditions. Interacting with these individuals rolled downstream to the criminal justice and public safety systems.

    People in crisis call 911. These systems had to expand their scope to include preventing and responding to general social problems creating an overlap with human services.

    Memphis Model CIT was developed as the progenitor interdisciplinary program that secured public safety’s role in responding competently to mental and behavioral health crises. This expansion of scope inspired other models and methods of crisis intervention training and interdisciplinary prevention for a host of social problems that can become life-threatening emergencies. CIT is a staple program and model, but it does not preclude securing more holistic preventative programs at the community level.

    While commendable and heartening in the spirit of compassion, service and protection, and while many public safety agencies do provide psychosocial supports for their communities, traditional human services are not the primary role of public safety.

    Professions trained for this specific work, like social work, provide competent, logistical support to agencies concerning these pressures that may have been incorrectly assigned to them. This removes room for error, or unintentional harm, on the agency. Whatever the originating problem, 911 comes when called. Thanks to collaboration and working together from shared values, every system with a critical role is represented by a professional who makes up the interdisciplinary team composition.

    Preventative and proactive measures through linked spheres

    Being proactive requires knowing the chain of response and continuum of care to anticipate what services are needed next. As the gatekeeper for emergency services, 911 telecommunicators set the tone for a seamless transition of empathic, trauma-informed and crisis-theory supported care. To best prepare 911 telecommunicators for their role as gatekeeper in the continuum of care, a combination of CIT training, psychological/mental health first aid training, knowledge of community resources and an enhanced EMD program are indicated. Developing an Emergency Medical Dispatch supplement, specific to interdisciplinary response, is helpful and should incorporate:

    • Trauma-informed communication.
    • CIT training.
    • Knowledge of the role of co-responders and their scope of work.
    • Psychological/mental health first aid or combination thereof.
    • De-escalation.

    This supports the call-taker in selecting the most appropriate call type with corresponding triage level and responders so that a highly competent and comprehensive interdisciplinary team is dispatched. Through this initial interaction, the call-taker has provided an empathetic, compassionate and competent tone for the caller’s upcoming encounter with responders.

    CIT is a popular choice for an interdisciplinary crisis response program due to its success. CIT brings 911 telecommunicators, law enforcement officers, mental health stakeholders, mental health peers and mental health clinicians together to respond to mental and behavioral health emergencies.

    CIT seeks to ensure safety of all responders and individuals. This approach also helps prevent injury and reduces use-of-force occurrences, ascertaining voluntary help-seeking versus TDO/ECO. Finally, it also creates a path that connects the individual with necessary community and health resources.

    Similarly, co-responder teams for social problems that create connection, show compassion and initiate the sequence of case management or care coordination are prudent. Models that embed the direct hire of a social worker with a graduate-level education are incredibly effective in the communities where these programs exist. Some of these social workers have been dubbed “police social workers,” however, for the purposes of a comprehensive approach, “public safety social worker” is a more holistic title. In addition to behavioral and mental health crisis calls, they may respond to the following types of calls:

    • Domestic disturbances.
    • Homelessness.
    • Sexual violence.
    • Reports of child or older adult neglect or abuse.
    • Other call types that need the immediate attention of a mental health clinician.

    With the clinician’s attention toward the psychosocial-emotional needs of the individual/family, this allows other responders to perform their roles. The unreliable routine of making a referral call to social services and handing someone a pamphlet is replaced with the presence of the actual clinician trained to engage, assess and help intervene with solving these problems.

    Advocacy for providing field placement and clinical training opportunities within public safety agencies at the undergraduate or graduate level, as well as developing courses designed for public safety cultural competency and interdisciplinary work are indicated.  

    Embedding a social worker within fire-rescue agencies is also promising. These co-responders’ services are indicated for mental and behavioral health crises, displacement due to fire or natural disaster, mass casualty incidents, or domestic assault where the physical wounds of survivors are triaged along with the application of psychological first aid as immediately as possible.

    Additionally, developing community paramedicine programs that employ a clinician for care coordination are a comprehensive and proactive model for prevention. This co-responder model addresses social determinants of health risks that compromise health and safety, which are especially beneficial for rural and/or impoverished individuals, families, and communities.

    Whatever the composition or model of team, the obvious and consistent overlap of required services necessitates responding to the complex needs of communities.

    Strengthening the continuum through shared values

    Interdisciplinary response is a steadily growing facet of public safety, widely endorsed by a variety of stakeholders and participants. Involving community level supports for ongoing case management and care cannot be a disconnected event or be presented in the form of a pamphlet. It must start at the scene (assuming scene safety) in the heat of the problem so intervention doesn’t fall through the cracks but, instead, guides the person along the continuum of care.

    The professionals that comprise interdisciplinary teams share compassion and a moral impetus to protect and better the lives of the people in their communities. It’s why they went into their respective lines of work. Separated by silos along this continuum of care, they address individuals’ and groups’ needs ineffectively and inconsistently. Together in integrated and interdisciplinary work, they are stronger and can promote prevention as well as competent response that is holistic, trauma-informed and provides for safety and well-being.

    Agencies must advocate for the value of these forms of intervention and care, and they need to continue to work from shared visions about the safety and well-being of the communities served.   

    About the Author

    Jen Leftwich is a former Emergency Communications Officer for Powhatan County Public Safety Communications and Powhatan Sheriff’s Office where she formed the agency’s CISM/Peer Support team. She is certified CISM through UMBC and the ICISF, CIT certified, earned an M.A. in Trauma and Crisis Counseling, a Forensic Social Work certificate, and will complete her Clinical M.S.W. at Virginia Commonwealth University in May 2021. She plans to practice clinically and independently with uniformed and protective service populations, while also advocating for continued collaborative interdisciplinary partnerships between social work and public safety. She is a proud LE/Fire/Rescue/Military family member and advocate.

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  • 03 Sep 2020 9:27 AM | International Public Safety Association (Administrator)

    By Brett Clark, Director, Public Sector, North America at Nearmap

    Keeping communities safe is a loaded responsibility in today’s current climate. Whether serving high risk warrants, planning crowd control and road closures, or assisting emergency response, world-class aerial imagery from Nearmap offers public safety officials decision-supporting detail that is reliably up-to-date, and instantly accessible. It’s about finding more peace of mind in planning when you’re working extremely hard to keep the peace.

    Public safety departments across the nation are finding new and better ways to use accurate location data to help keep their communities safer than ever before. Chicago Police Department and Shelby County employed the use of Nearmap and eliminated unnecessary processes to tighten and improve their safety evaluation workflows.

    Chicago Police Department (Illinois)
    Challenge: Improve response times and minimize risk to officers

    Chicago Police Department, the second largest police force in America (after New York), combined Nearmap with its existing GIS three years ago to pull exact mapping data on every emergency call location in the city (an area of over 300 square miles), speeding up response times and giving first responders an instant sense of the environment they were walking into.

    The same data is used to scout locations for installing crime cameras and is available to the city’s 14,000 police officers. Nearmap easily integrates with other software and data sets from property tax and event management, allowing a high degree of predictive policing. The result of this effort is a murder rate that declined by more than one-third in four years.

    Shelby County (Tennessee)
    Challenge: Outdated, unreliable location maps

    As the largest county in Tennessee, it was imperative for Shelby County to have access to true location intelligence in their dispatch center. The heart of the operation sits in Memphis, home to the Emergency Communications District, which operates the local 9-1-1 emergency system.

    For each dispatch center, the District provides county address location mapping. A secure database contains the exact 9-1-1 address for any associated phone numbers. This database is queried at the time of a 9-1-1 call to obtain the caller’s location. The data is then placed in dispatch and 9-1-1 mapping software to help fire and rescue, emergency medical services and law enforcement get instant access to current, consistently clear aerial maps. Overlaying the imagery with GIS data allows emergency personnel to get to the right locations as soon as possible.

    For years, Shelby County’s aerial image process required a contracted flight to photograph the county areas. Because of the high cost of capturing those images, the county purchased images only once every two years, after pooling resources from various county entities.

    “While the images were high resolution, there were issues with mosaicking the separate images together. And since the imagery was taken every two years, many rural and unincorporated areas were out of date,” said Timothy Zimmer, the GIS Administrator for Shelby County’s Emergency Communications District. With out of date images, the county had to develop alternate methods to locate addresses for the 9-1-1 system.

    Subscription-based aerial imagery and ArcGIS

    With both the Chicago PD and Shelby County, Nearmap provided a better and more efficient way to map routes or plan camera installations for public safety. Having access to stunningly clear aerial content at their fingertips means public safety officials can respond quicker in an event and know exactly what exists on the ground. And because Nearmap captures imagery up to three times a year in major urban areas, public safety officials can compare leaf-on/leaf-off seasonality to track changes and identify any problem areas.

    Beyond clear views and current captures, another big advantage Nearmap provides is the ability to integrate the imagery directly into the ArcGIS suite of products, such as ArcMap, ArcPro and ArcGIS Online. Inclusively, our integration partnership with RapidDeploy, one of the industry’s leading emergency response platforms, allows our products to increase situational awareness. Being able to overlay GIS information onto the high-resolution imagery provides critical insight for planning and scaling operations appropriately.

    “Before Nearmap, we had gaps where we wouldn’t have updated imagery. We’re able to stay on top of new developments, roads, and addresses. Being able to have Nearmap imagery integrated into our GIS systems helps us be much more accurate,” shared Timothy Zimmer, GIS Administrator for Shelby County.

    To learn more about Nearmap and the rich catalogue of aerial data proactively captured across the U.S. and Canada, visit Discover the benefits of integrating true location intelligence into your public safety planning measures, because what you don’t see, could be costing you.

    About the Author

    Brett Clark was employee #2 at Nearmap in the U.S. when it started capturing aerial data in 2014. As company leader in the government space, Brett focuses heavily on the public sector, both with state and local entities. His goal is to help improve the processes and systems used by city and state officials with unmatched visualization of their communities. Brett currently resides in Indianapolis with his wife and three daughters.

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  • 10 Aug 2020 9:26 AM | IPSA Leadership (Administrator)

    By Stephanie R. DeRiso, Captain, United States Army, IPSA Member

    Social, economic and political instability is often identified in developing countries as a major risk factor for the talons of violent extremism to take hold.  As the country faces widespread civil unrest amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, similar contributors to instability are now present in America. In considering this context, public safety professionals must be aware of the pernicious threat of violent extremism growing within American communities.

    As disease control and quarantine regulations have forced many out of work and in to their homes, the internet has become a viable meeting place for many Americans facing the physical, social and psychological factors that make people especially vulnerable to the propaganda and manipulation tactics of violent extremists. Vulnerability factors that can be exacerbated by pandemic conditions include feelings of isolation and loneliness, a desire for guidance amidst too much and often inaccurate information, a low sense of self-worth, a feeling of loss of control and a need for excitement. The internet provides an easy, anonymous forum for violent extremists to groom vulnerable recruits, spread overt and covert propaganda, and even raise funds to support and enhance operational capabilities.

    Awareness, community trust and partnerships

    Public safety professionals, especially law enforcement officers, have a duty to be aware of the threat of violent extremism and its growing capabilities. Law enforcement must pay special attention to disrupt violent extremist organizations and movements as recruiting and operational planning increasingly fester in the virtual realm before actualizing in the real world.

    Common venues for radicalization, like social media accounts and gaming platforms, inhibit the ability of law enforcement to readily identify the signs and indicators of violent extremism that are no longer quite as overt and traceable. As such, law enforcement must be deliberate to enhance trust and communication within and across their jurisdictions to establish and work toward the collaborative goal of countering this concerning trend.

    Community members must feel safe and empowered to bring a potentially troubling Facebook post or Instagram direct message to those tasked with protecting the public and trust that it will be taken seriously. Public safety professionals must also be diligent in developing mutually supportive relationships between public safety, law enforcement and homeland security agencies at all levels.

    Deliberate, enduring partnerships across agencies and echelons is especially critical as stove-piping information, as famously identified in the 9/11 Commission Report, is an unnecessary and unacceptable barrier to ensuring community safety. Additional guidance on leveraging community policing concepts to counter violent extremism can be found in this 2014 Department of Justice publication.

    Recognizing threats

    In tackling increased threats gaining momentum on the internet, public safety leaders must ensure their employees are educated and trained to recognize the unique verbiage, symbolism and rhetoric that indicate affiliation with and a call to action for violent extremism. Recall when the FBI was mocked for an arguably inaccurate and out of touch glossary of almost 3,000 entries of supposed internet slang maintained by the Intelligence Research Support Unit. Senior leaders must leverage the unique access, awareness and understanding within the junior ranks to keep their finger on the pulse of trends and nuances of social media within the evolving, increasingly complex ecosystem of the internet. This is especially important when higher echelons and formal research have not caught up.

    Targets for attacks

    While protecting the public is top priority, public safety professionals must also be diligent to protect themselves across their ranks. Not only are law enforcement professionals viable targets for attacks perpetrated by violent extremist individuals and organizations, but current and former law enforcement present a lucrative recruiting pool.

    Historically, current and former military members have been recruited to enhance the operational and strategic capabilities of criminal gangs and racial supremacist groups. Public safety professionals trained in military and policing tactics are also especially attractive enlistees in movements emerging from internet forums and materializing in the real world. One such virtual-to-reality movement is the far-right, libertarian, anti-government leaning and largely internet born and bred Boogaloo Boys.

    Members previously trained and experienced in military and police tactics represent an opportunity for violent extremists to leverage these skills to enable operational capabilities to enhance the spread and validation of group ideology. Further, it is not a stretch to say that many public safety professionals are especially interested in firearms and protecting the rights afforded to Americans within the Second Amendment. Connecting with likeminded individuals, familiar and amenable to organizations built on camaraderie and hierarchy, on internet forums can lead to subtle indoctrination, slow creep toward radicalization and deliberate grooming of even the most ideologically moderate of people.

    It cannot be emphasized enough that all disasters are local. Public safety professionals at the local level must be especially diligent to seek out information and understand the threat landscape emerging on the internet; state and federal authorities are not always in tune with local nuances or as readily able to notice shifting dynamics as so many communities have moved online in the current pandemic context. Local interference cannot be accomplished without leveraging community support, pursuing awareness of the virtual domain, and understanding the vulnerabilities and motivations that lead individuals and groups towards violent extremism.

    About the Author

    Stephanie DeRiso has served in the U.S. Army for 8 years. She enlisted as a Mortuary Affairs Specialist and served at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware before earning her commission in to the Military Police Corps. As a Military Police Officer, she led law enforcement operations in Fort Stewart, Georgia and across Europe in support of Operation Atlantic Resolve. She was selected as a Joint Special Operations Command Cultural Support Team Specialist and served on training and combat operations alongside special operations units throughout Afghanistan in support of Operation Freedom’s Sentinel. Most recently, she is pursuing qualification as an Army Special Operations Civil Affairs Officer at the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Criminology, Law, and Society from George Mason University and is nearing completion of her Master of Professional Studies in Emergency and Disaster Management from Georgetown University.

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  • 06 Jul 2020 12:51 PM | International Public Safety Association (Administrator)

    By Lawrence Nolan, Ph.D., Program Manager, Capstone Corporation, IPSA Member

    In the United States, public safety organizations have bodies of water within their jurisdictions that present hazardous and enforcement issues that need to be managed. 

    In accordance with the U.S. Geological Survey, the surface of the U.S. is covered by 264,837 square miles of water or 7 percent of the surface area of the nation. In addition, the United States Coast Guard Publication 3-0 Operations identifies the U.S. Marine Transportation System that includes 95,000 miles of coastline, with 361 ports and 12,000 miles of an of interconnected system of inland rivers and intracoastal waterways.

    These bodies of water, in or around states and municipalities, take the form of an ocean, gulf, bay, sound, inlet, lake, canal, reservoir, river, stream, creek, swamp, wetland or pond. Given the varying types of bodies of water, public safety organizations need to consider several safety, environmental and enforcement issues.

    Issues, policy considerations

    An important governance function in a jurisdiction is addressing public safety aspects for the bodies of water that are within its boundaries. This includes mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery. Below are examples of hazards:

    • Meteorological (severe storm, hurricane)
    • Hydrologic (flood, storm surge, tsunami)
    • Technologic (fires, toxic releases)

    In addition to managing hazards, public safety organizations are responsible for the enforcement of laws and regulations applicable to bodies of water in the jurisdiction. These actions allow public safety to manage commercial and recreational boating, natural resources, pollution, crimes, critical infrastructure, search, rescue and recovery.

    Multi-agency coordination
    In many instances, public safety management is a joint effort. Federal, state and local governments coordinate and collaborate in managing the water in and around the U.S. Coordination and communications between and within each level is key to address management responsibilities. The sharing of public safety resources in the form of mutual aid agreements allow for economical management solutions.

    Below is a list of organizations commonly involved with the with coordination, planning and management of various bodies of water:

    • U.S. Department of Homeland Security (U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Customs and Boarder Protection, Federal Emergency Management Agency)
    • U.S. Department of Transportation
    • U.S. Department of Interior
    • Environmental Protection Agency
    • National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration
    • Marine police and rescue
    • Fish and wildlife
    • Environmental protection
    • Natural resources
    • Search and rescue
    • Fire departments  

    Each entity must manage and balance risks, resources, personnel, safety, enforcement of laws and regulations and other factors.

    2020 incidents in bodies of water

    To appreciate how public safety is managed across the nation, public safety incidents on bodies of water in May and June 2020 are provided below from news organizations.

    • A massive fire on San Francisco Pier 45 in May 2020 required 45 fire engines to extinguish the flames. San Francisco Fireboat 3 was used to protect the historic WW II ship, Jeremiah O’Brien, which was moored at the pier as reported by KRON4.  
    • In May 2020, Prime Patriot reported that Virginia swift water rescue crews safely evacuated 20 hikers trapped in a flash flood caused from a heavy rain storm.
    • In Connecticut, the Fairfield Fire Department Engine 1 and Marine 217 responded to a kayaker who fell off his boat and became separated without a lifejacket. A drone was launched to locate the kayaker who swam to rocks offshore and was rescued in May 2020. The Bridgeport Fire and Police Marine units also responded to the incident and were in coordination with the U.S. Coast Guard according to the Connecticut Post.
    • A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter from Traverse City, MI rescued a kayaker that had fallen from his boat in the Georgian Bay off Ontario Canada in May 2020 as reported by
    • Detroit News reported that the US Customs and Border Patrol stopped a boat and Canadan ma June 2020.
    • Eight Jacksonville, FL firefighters were injured from an explosion while fighting a fire aboard a cargo ship docked at a pier on Blount Island. Approximately 150 personnel, numerous engines, and three fireboats from the Jacksonville Fire Department were involved in extinguishing the fire according to FireRescue1.
    • A 30-foot vessel radioed a mayday while taking on water in the Grand Traverse Bay of Lake Michigan in June 2020. The U.S. Coast Guard dispatched a ship and helicopter to the scene and were joined by another boater to rescue the 10 passengers before the boat sank according to the AP.
    • Seattle Police responded in June 2020 to a suspicious bag on the shore of Elliot Bay according to Fox News. The police found human remains in the bag and dispatched a police boat to the area which recovered another bag containing human remains floating in the bay.

    Public safety management responsibilities for the waters of the U.S. is a coordinated effort of federal, state and local governments working together to allow for commerce to flow freely, preservation of natural resources, and safe commercial and recreational boating.

    The U.S. Coast Guard is a leader on the nation’s waters and exercises unique capabilities as a member of the U.S. DHS and one of the six armed forces of the U.S. Department of Defense.  Its missions are to protect those on the sea, protect against threats from sea, and protect the sea itself as addressed in United States Coast Guard Publication 3-0 Operations.

    Ensuring public safety on the waters in and around the United States is a collaborative effort requiring vigilance and collaboration.

    About the Author

    Lawrence Nolan, Ph.D. is a Program Manager for Capstone Corporation, retired from the Department of the Army and U.S. Navy Reserve, and is a member of the USCG Auxiliary. 

  • 06 Jul 2020 12:41 PM | International Public Safety Association (Administrator)

    By Jennifer Leftwich, Graduate Clinical Social Work Student, IPSA Mental Health, Fitness & Wellness Committee Member

    “Be strong, my heart. You’ve survived worse and kept your nerve.” Odysseus

    With the evolving pandemic, recent civil unrest, natural disasters, continued violence, economic uncertainty, and the lack of uniformed leadership, we are arguably living in a perfect storm of uncharted waters. There is no map to guide us. There are no search and rescue teams coming to save us. We cannot send a distress signal, but there is a survival kit: moral identity and moral expectations, or also known as, the moral compass.

    Moral compass

    While chaos and danger continue to threaten us, the moral compass protects and guides public safety officials through hardship. The moral compass is a shield of the human condition. It grounds a person. It cultivates courage. It contains values and beliefs about what is treasured and what is to be protected. It aids humans by informing their experience in and assumptions about the world to create purpose and mission to withstand adversity. During these ongoing events and emergencies, the public safety and health officials who have dedicated their lives to protecting citizens’ safety and wellbeing, are possibly vulnerable to questioning their sense of direction in their mission.

    What happens when these emergency responders who work under intensifying pressure for a society that wavers between hero-worship and devaluing, despite their unwavering commitment to society’s protection?

    The answer is a different crisis occurs: moral injury.

    Emergency responders may begin to question their roles in societal suffering and possibly question the validity of their chosen vocations or lives themselves. When pre-existing daily stressors and occupational hazards inherent in public safety work are coupled with the current crises, the risk for moral injury is high, despite the protective factors of adaptability and fluidity.

    Moral injury explained

    Historically, moral injury has been studied and discussed in the context of military servicemembers and veterans. Because moral injury overlaps and co-occurs with symptoms of PTS on a continuum, and because public safety shares spheres of connection with military service like mortal danger, studying moral injury in the public safety population is indicated.

    Distinguishing between the overlaps helps identify the originating problem (the true north) and is critical to assessment and intervention. The more specific and holistic understanding of the person in his or her environment, in relationship to the origin of the problem, the better chance for competent supports.

    From there, other co-occurring disruptions can be assessed and worked through as they relate to the origin. Frankl said, “we cannot infer from a shadow what casts it” that environmental circumstances must be incorporated to create a holistic picture.

    In this overlap, it is possible that moral injury as a multidimensional problem (not a psychiatric diagnosis) may be the precursor to other maladies or vice versa.

    Identifying moral injury

    How does someone sustain moral injury? It is not a broken bone that a person can point at and say, “that’s what hurts.”

    Moral injury is a soul wound that occurs when an authority figure or person with the responsibility of power (either themselves or someone else) commits, witnesses, or fails to prevent a violation of their moral code, in a high-stakes situation where mortal danger is present. Put another way, when “psychological trauma” is disassembled into its Greek origin, it translates to “spirit wound” or “soul wound.”

    It is a normal human reaction to tragedies that occur beyond the reach of human control.

    Mechanism of injury 

    Moral injury is being out at sea in a dangerous storm and the navigation system becomes damaged. The person’s internal compass is broken. This makes it increasingly difficult for a person to know if they are headed in the right direction, let alone where they are; to trust themselves and those around them; to believe their identity, purpose or mission is even justified at all.

    When public safety officials experience this betrayal it misaligns their moral compass; the very part of being human that called them to a life of service. That is when pain and anguish begin.

    The assumptions of control have been breached. Regardless that public safety officials are trained to manage crises, they are still human and there are forces beyond their control. This prompts questions like:

    • Did I do everything I could?
    • Did I make the right decision?
    • Why did I do that?
    • What have I done?
    • How could you make me do that?

    Moral injury symptoms

    Moral injury reveals itself through a continuum of the human condition’s dimensions. Emotionally, feelings of guilt, shame, grief, anger, sadness and despair can be present.

    Common behaviors are self-loathing, loss of faith, loss of meaning, self-sabotaging, substance abuse and self-isolating. Because the spiraling nature of moral injury creates internal dissonance and produces diminished ability and capacity to trust, there is an increased risk for suicide or suicidal ideation.

    Repairing and recalibrating the moral compass

    Public safety professionals are helpers, fixers and protectors. They are brave. Their baseline stress level is the crisis point for most civilians. They demonstrate psychological elasticity and adaptability daily. This is who they are at their core. It lends itself to drive and determination. Their careers are journeys to put their gifts of being clutch under pressure to meaningful use.

    Because public safety officials are still human, damage may happen to their moral compasses. However, this damage can be repaired and recalibrated. This requires accurate input to get back to alignment. Since isolation and a loss of capacity for trust are primary markers of moral injury, it stands to reason that social support through meaningful relationships is tantamount to repair. This manifests through a variety of methods.

    As part of a multi-level integrated triage approach, proactive and well-developed formal peer support is a critical asset to public safety agencies as a first-line support. Peers provide a safe, empathic and normalized relationship and can help refer for additional supports. On the more holistic side, individuals with a moral injury are encouraged to return to old or develop new hobbies and recreational activities and seek spiritual care.

    Clinically, strengths-based therapeutic modalities that focus on fortifying forgiveness, life narratives, acceptance and commitment, family systems, and cognitive-behavioral aspects have been shown to be helpful. Addressing any substance use barriers to wellness is also imperative. These methods of re-forging meaningful relationships and activities can re-ignite the soul and aid in realigning the moral compass. They can spark hope, faith and moral courage. They can bring joy and healing. They direct a person to reconnect with their primary role. They remind a person that despite their vocation, they are a multifaceted living human.

    Going forward

    The concept of moral injury is not new, though it has had many names and faces. That is meant to offer comfort, not to minimize or devalue pain. Humans have historically grappled with the internal anguish of a transgressed conscience. Maybe it is too vast to encapsulate it into one term. No matter what fits best, a broken spirit and rupture in basic trust can have lasting detrimental effects.

    As long as there have been humans with large hearts and deep minds, there has been existential tension and anguish. They survived. They learned they are more than a vocation and that level of assigned meaning to roles is malleable. They used adversity to strengthen their moral courage. They shared their messages so others would find solace. People forget this, get distracted or blissfully hide. Fortunately, even while wounded, the soul knows and will speak through whatever pangs demand the most attention for its moral compass to be repaired. The storm does not become less treacherous. You just become more courageous. You trust your moral compass again.


    About the Author

    Jennie Leftwich is a former Emergency Communications Officer for Powhatan County Public Safety Communications and Powhatan Sheriff’s Office where she formed the agency’s CISM/Peer Support team. She is certified CISM through UMBC and the ICISF, CIT certified, earned an M.A. in Trauma and Crisis Counseling, a Forensic Social work certificate, and will complete her Clinical M.S.W. at Virginia Commonwealth University in May 2021. She plans to practice clinically and independently with public safety and military veterans’ populations, while also advocating for better collaborative partnerships between social work and public safety. She is a proud LE/Fire/Rescue/Military granddaughter, daughter, sibling, spouse, and advocate who grew up in San Diego.

  • 22 Jun 2020 8:44 AM | International Public Safety Association (Administrator)

    By Sarah Guenette, Learning & Development Manager, Calgary Community Standards, IPSA Mental Health & Wellness Committee Member

    Public safety events often have stressful and long-term effects on those involved. It is imperative that first responder agencies have a strong internal support system in place for employees. One of the resources to consider is a Peer Support team.

    The theory behind peer support is simple – the power of shared experience. There are multiple models for peer support including internal and external and they range from informal to formal clinical care models. This article will focus on workplace peer support which is a formal and intentional form of support.

    The nature of the shared experience varies with the environment. In first responder agencies, the shared experience is being in the same work environment and having exposure to the stressors related to the first responder role. Peers are there to offer support, empathy, guidance, information and access to resources. In the eyes of a first responder who is struggling, another first responder may be the only person who truly “gets it.”

    Selection, qualifications of peers

    It is well known there is a stigma against getting help within first responder communities. For some of them it is difficult to take that first step to ask for help and admit they are struggling. While the culture is slowly changing, stigma is still a factor. When a first responder finally takes the step to talk to someone, they want someone they respect, trust and who is going to be empathetic.

    When selecting peers an agency needs to consider what attributes other first responders would be looking for in that person. Just because someone wants to be a peer doesn’t mean they will be suited for the role. They need to know and live the values of hope, recovery, empathy and self-determination. They also need to be skilled in interpersonal communication, critical thinking and be supportive of change.

    To ensure the selection of appropriate peers, agencies could consider an application and selection process. This emphasizes the importance of the role through formalizing it. It could entail informal or formal interviews or reference checks with coworkers.

    Each agency needs to decide what training they are prepared to deliver for peers; peer support training is critical. But ultimately successful peers should already have three core traits in common:

    1. The ability to empathize.
    2. The willingness to listen.
    3. The resilience to carry others’ problems along with their own.

    One of the most valuable ways for new peers to learn is to work alongside more experienced ones. It is important that those existing peers demonstrate the values the workforce respects.

    Performance of peers should be managed just like any other work tasks. Peers who break confidentiality without good cause should be asked to leave the team and any complaints against a peer should be investigated through the agency’s usual procedure.


    It is imperative that management, leaders of the peer support team, field personnel and the peers themselves are all aware of the confidentiality rules that each agency puts in place. This should be documented in a policy, procedure or code of conduct which is acknowledged by all peers and communicated to all staff.

    Situations that could lead to self-harm or harm to others should permit breaking of confidentiality. Aside from those scenarios, the leadership of the peer team and management need to clearly define the parameters of escalation so that everyone is on the same page, including employees who may access the team.

    Employees will open-up to the peer about things that they do not want shared, very personal things. Outside of the predetermined parameters where disclosure is mandatory, the peer must keep this information to themselves unless the employee indicates that they want them to share it. If a peer team is seen by employees to be breaking confidentiality, employees will not approach them and will not use them as a resource and the team will no longer be effective.

    Confidentiality is part of any successful psychological health and safety system.

    Necessary disclosure

    There will be times when peers will need to breach confidentiality for safety reasons. How these incidents are handled should be planned to avoid uncertainty in the moment and unintended consequences. These are cases where time is of the essence and the member needs additional support urgently. There needs to be a safety component to these situations whether it is safety of the member themselves, a loved one or the public.

    It is critical that all steps be taken to protect the member’s privacy and integrity. If an incident where a member is in crisis is handled poorly it can undermine the good intentions and image of the peer team. Ensure all peers understand the steps to take when they are faced with a safety sensitive situation.


    Leaders of a peer team need to demonstrate the team is successful, that they are being accessed and that they are considered a valuable resource by employees. In order to obtain this data, a tracking system is needed. Peers can report interactions in a way that doesn’t breach confidentiality. A system of coded reporting where neither the peer nor the employee is identifiable is ideal.

    Tracking is also useful for identifying organizational trending. If peers broadly categorize conversations in the tracking system, it can demonstrate whether there is a particular area of concern within the workforce. This gives management the opportunity to address that trend through training in that area or by offering additional support resources to assist.

    Health of peers

    Peer support team members need to be able to take on the problem of others in addition to their own.

    When there are stressors within a workplace, the draw on them as a resource will increase, not decrease, even though they are dealing with the same stressors. They need to be able to balance supporting others and ensuring that they can stay healthy and use healthy coping mechanisms.

    It is important that peers receive psychological health training so they can understand triggers, warning signs and healthy versus unhealthy coping strategies. If a peer is starting to feel overwhelmed, it is critical that they reach out to another member of the team to talk about it, and if necessary, request to take a break from supporting until they feel more stable to continue.

    For peers to protect their own health, they need to be empowered to establish boundaries with coworkers. Peers are not mental health professionals. They provide timely support to a coworker and help them to identify the resources that they need. Peers should not be expected to support employees through long term psychological struggles. Follow up check-ins with employees are key and should be done after an initial conversation has taken place, but the peer cannot be the sole support for a member.

    Leadership support

    Ideally a peer support team will be an initiative that is strongly supported from the top down. Leaders, especially operational ones, can play a pivotal role in whether an initiative is endorsed by the front line. Having a well-respected leader as a champion of the program will help it succeed. Since a peer support team is a resource to support worker health and wellness, the union will also ideally be supportive, although they may have questions and concerns, especially around confidentiality. If both senior leadership and the union support the initiative that should be communicated to employees along with clear communication about how the team will function.


    Every agency will benefit from having a peer support program. When implemented effectively it can be one of the best resources for first responders to access help, and more importantly, for taking the step to ask for it in the first place. There are many factors to consider in building the team and things that need to be thought out prior to implementing anything. The peer support team needs to be structured to meet the needs of members for it to be effective. With well thought out planning and implementation, a peer support team can become a core component of any agency’s psychological health and wellness program.

    About the Author

    Sarah Guenette, M.A., is the Learning & Development Manager for Calgary Community Standards. She oversees recruit training and continuing education for 9-1-1 call evaluators, bylaw and animal officers, business licensing inspectors, livery inspectors and animal shelter services employees. Sarah has a background in 9-1-1 and was a call evaluator, dispatcher and operations manager for over 10 years. She has overseen the Psychological Health and Safety portfolio and the Peer Support team for Calgary Community Standards since 2013. She is passionate about creating and maintaining a healthy workplace for employees. Sarah is also the proud wife of a Calgary Police Service Officer.

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