Throughout my law enforcement career, I had a mantra: Be prepared for anything! I would remind my officers, peers, superiors and others that we must be prepared for any situation that may arise. To help us mentally prepare to take a course of action or respond to a traumatic incident, I would tell them to run scenarios in their heads on their way to work about what could happen and how they would address the situation; on the way home, they should think about themselves and their families.
Law enforcement and public safety personnel are familiar with unusual and traumatic events; it's what they are trained for. But, what about other non-public safety workers who may not be first responders, but can be adversely impacted by a major event? The incident could happen in front of them, they may have to respond to it, and/or they could be made aware of what occurred.
How would non-first responders handle the crisis psychologically, both short and long term, when it can be difficult enough to process even for those that have been trained to respond? We saw this play out on the streets of Manhattan in 2009, when the United States Air Force decided to update file photographs of Air Force One flying over New York City, including the Statute of Liberty. The photoshoot caused wide spread panic among New Yorkers, including some public safety workers, who thought it was another 9/11-style terrorist attack. It caused people to evacuate buildings and run for their lives.
When I was asked to create a Crisis Management and Communications course for an international airport, I included a section on psychological preparedness. In that section, we discussed how major disruptive incidents can have psychological effects beyond the first responders and how services might need to be provided organization-wide. This is especially true in those incidents that result in loss of life.
Understanding that an airport is an industrial environment and aviation itself is a lucrative target for terrorists and others who want to do harm to draw attention to their cause, we must realize that the key to psychological resilience and recovery begins with preparing yourself mentally in advance to avoid long-term emotional effects. When a major event occurs, the need for responders goes well beyond the first round of public safety personnel; even an accountant may be required to respond and provide assistance as well.
Our Psychological Preparedness Course was designed to help employees at all levels understand the need for psychological resiliency. We discuss the processes of successfully adapting in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress. The course provides employees with tools and coping skills to bounce back from difficult experiences, as well as information on how to be aware of their own culture, while understanding that other cultures may handle stress differently.
The course also concentrates on how to recognize the signs and symptoms of incident-related stress that may be mild, moderate, severe, or debilitating or may manifest itself well after the event has been secured, sometimes in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These symptoms may include:
- Separating oneself psychologically from an unbearable situation
- Not acknowledging the event
- Pain, nausea, and difficulty breathing
- Feeling physically and mentally drained
- Having difficulty making decisions or staying focused on topics
- Becoming easily frustrated on a more frequent basis
- Arguing more with co-workers, family, and friends
- Feeling tired, sad, numb, lonely or worried
- Experiencing changes in appetite or sleep patterns
- Turning to alcohol, drugs, or inappropriate behaviors
We discuss the sequence of stressful events that may follow exposure to traumatic events such as terrorist attacks, active shooters, natural disasters that result in a major loss of resources or life, and exposure to stressors that require transitional adjustments due to major losses, such as the loss of a loved one. These sequences create a series of related challenges to overcome that adds to the stressful situation that a person is coping with both on the job and at home.
When dealing with these types of trauma, we emphasize to employees there are both benefits and limitations to connecting with others and giving and receiving social support. There may be times when peer or family support is not enough and may actually hinder a person’s recovery from traumatic events because the employee is "trying to be strong."
This may be the time when outside professional intervention is necessary. The most important theme of this class is to let employees know that reactions to traumatic events are normal, as is seeking help when coping becomes difficult. Whether it is peer support, family support or professional intervention, employees will recover faster if they are prepared prior to the event and don't try to process the situation alone.
Come join the conversation and learn more about psychological resiliency at the 91st Annual AAAE Conference and Exhibition on the beautiful Boston waterfront, June 16-19, 2019. Visit the site for more information on this session and others.