Critical Incidents: Mitigating Stress in First Responders

Critical Incidents: Mitigating Stress in First Responders

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and Vector Solutions understands the significant impact mental health can have on the well-being of public safety first responders. In high-stress professions like public safety, police officers, firefighters, emergency medics, and telecommunicators frequently experience critical incidents that can cause traumatic stress responses.

Recognizing traumatic stressors brought on by critical incidents in yourself and your peers is essential for mitigating and managing stress. In a recent webinar, industry experts Cathy and Javier Bustos, known as That Peer Support Couple, and Solutions Engineer Johnny Roberson had an in-depth discussion on first responder stress management after experiencing a critical incident.

This article will explore highlights from the recent webinar, Basics of Surviving a Critical Incident, and identifies several Vector Solutions' online training courses, deliverable through Vector’s Learning Management System (LMS), to help first responders better understand and manage stress.

What is Stress?

Not all stress is bad stress. Good stress can motivate you and prepare the body and brain for what's next, like taking the police licensing exam or a physical agility test. Such experiences may be stressful at the time, but once completed, it positively impacts your life. Traumatic stress is the result of experiencing a critical incident or trauma. It's an adverse physiological reaction, and it can greatly differ from person to person.

What is a Critical Incident?

CISM, which cites 87% of all emergency service personnel are affected by a critical incident at some point in their career, defines a critical incident as "any event that has a stressful impact sufficient enough to overwhelm your usual coping strategies." Cathy and Javier Bustos dismantled the common misconception that everyone experiences a critical incident identically or even considers the same experiences as critical incidents.

"Just like stress affects everyone differently, so do critical incidents."

Cathy Bustos

First responders face many traumatic experiences while performing their duties that can impact each person differently. From the death of a child to a mass homicide or an active shooter event, the personal experience of a critical incident affects how traumatic stress manifests.

Time and Experience Personalize Critical Incidents

Javier noted, "Everyone in their lives is at a different point in their mental health and their resiliency." And what you consider a critical incident today may change over time and with your personal circumstances.

Johnny shared a moving story about the death of a young child when his wife was pregnant with their first daughter. He recalled how he lashed out and threatened to arrest the ER doctor if he stopped working on the child after calling time of death. After getting worked up to the point that his supervisor had to intervene and remove him from the ER, he said it wasn't until he underwent Peer Support and Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CSID) training that he recognized what he had experienced was a critical incident.

Addressing Critical Incidents in First Responders

"I remember being told when I first started out as a police officer at 21 years old that if what I experienced bothered me, I needed to find another job," Johnny stated as he recalled how different stress and mental health was understood early in his career compared to today.

Javier and Cathy emphasized how essential it is for those in public safety leadership to invest in the mental health of their workforce. "Any form of police reform or reimagining a police department has to include a robust physical and mental health program for employees," said Cathy. They listed the following as benefits of investing in their mental health:

  • happier employees
  • increased production levels
  • less sick time
  • quality employees doing their best work

Cathy honed in on how essential it is to invest in continuous training on stress, critical incidents, and mental health "from hire to retire" for first responders. Javier added, "Your educated first responders are going to be able to help each other out."

Recognizing Stress Indicators in Yourself and Your Peers

The panel reiterated how everyone's stress indicators are different and how important it is to recognize what they are for yourself and your peers.

Here are some common stress indicators highlighted in the discussion. Do they describe yourself or someone you know?

  • Physical: body aches, headaches, stomach aches, weakness, chest pain, chill, fatigue, nausea, insomnia, muscle tremors
    Emotional: fear, anxiety, guilt, intense anger
  • Behavioral: withdrawal, reclusiveness, erratic behavior/movement, hypervigilance
  • Appearance: stained uniform, unpolished boots, deep eye bags, unkempt hair

"I think anger is a big one. I think a lot of times, what happens is, when we see our partner angry, we sometimes do a disservice and don't attribute it to stress. We just think that they're mad at everything."

Javier Bustos

Just as important as Peer Support among first responders is the role of the first responder spouse. Johnny, Cathy, and Javier all shared how stress brought on by critical incidents has impacted their relationships. Javier remarked on spouses who have received the right education and understanding of stress indicators, "Your spouse is your first great peer you can have as a first responder." Spouses are often the first to recognize a change and are the first line of defense as the ones that know you best.

Methods and Techniques for Mitigating and Managing Stress

Managing stress is multi-facet and comprehensive. Javier acknowledged that communication is one of the best ways to overcome a critical incident, saying, "You have to be able to talk about what you're experiencing with your spouse or a peer."

That Peer Support Couple shared several additional self-care tips for managing stress, including:

  • Drink Water - flushes chemicals and toxins that flood your body after a critical incident and keeps you hydrated
  • Rest/Sleep - helps you register what's happened and heal your mind
  • Exercise - doesn't have to be high-impact; a 30-minute walk every day or swimming lowers your cortisol and lowers stress levels
  • Peer Support - go to ICISF trained first responders who will listen, not be judgmental, and will maintain confidentiality
  • Counseling - mental health check-up after experiencing a critical incident
  • Training - CSID training/seminars, mental health training
  • Recreation - don't lose your hobbies! Hobbies help take your mind off of the job and not bring it home with you.

The panel agreed that finding ways to destress and not bring your work life home is easier said than done, but worth the work. Mitigating and managing stress can improve aspects of your life outside of work, including your relationships with people in your personal life, like your spouse, children, and friends.

The following online training courses on stress and critical incidents for public safety are available in the Vector LMS course library:

  • EMS Workplace Stress
  • Mental Health for First Responders (EMS focused)
  • NFPA 1500 - Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in the Fire Department
  • Officer Survival - Physiological Response to Stress
  • Patrol - Critical Incident Stress Management
  • Understanding Fatigue for Law Enforcement
  • The Fundamentals of Stress 101
  • The Fundamentals of Stress 201
  • Smart Mental Health: Reducing Stress and Anxiety
  • Workplace Stress (General audience)

Watch the entire webinar recording for more insight into stress indicators, critical incidents, and suggestions to better manage in a high-stress profession.

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