Chaplain's Column: How to Survive Critical Incident Stress

The deputy took a six month leave of absence from the department. He never returned to work.


Imagine yourself walking down a nature trail. Suddenly you find yourself between a couple of cuddly bear cubs, and a furious mother grizzly. She stands on her hind legs, roars in anger, baring her fangs just before attacking. What do you do?!?! This is like critical incident stress; you don't see it coming, your normal coping skills don't work and it can be deadly.

During your training academy, you received something called a "stress inoculation." An inoculation gives you a very small amount of the disease so your body develops immunity against it. Even if you still catch the disease, your body will be much better equipped to fight it. A stress inoculation is designed to give you a small dose of what you will see and experience in the field, so you will develop immunity against its ill effects.

Jeffrey Mitchell, Ph.D., C.T.S. describes critical incidents as "...unusually challenging events that have the potential to create significant human distress and can overwhelm one's usual coping mechanisms." Critical incidents usually involve something traumatic such as officer involved shootings, line of duty deaths, officer suicides, or exposure to extreme human suffering--gory homicide or accident scenes, or ____ (fill in the blank).

Most critical incident stress (CIS) involves line officers. They frequently respond to emergency calls involving fatal car crashes, violent crimes, and combative suspects.

CIS can lead to a variety of ailments. These include Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), panic attacks, and depression, not to mention alcohol and/or drug abuse. These experiences accumulate and can eventually change a person. A person becomes jaded and cynical.

Here is an example of CIS: a small aircraft went missing. Several days passed until someone spotted the wings. They were high on a mountain, a few hundred feet below the tree line. Search and Rescue found the cockpit buried into the ground between some trees. Apparently, the pilot had lost control, plummeting to the ground. The wind sheared the wings off during a "death spiral." They would have to excavate the plane.

The terrain was difficult and steep. The elevation made it hard to catch your breath. You knew you were getting close, because the stench was overwhelming. The chaplain arrived about the time the cockpit was fully uncovered. He noticed a "small blue hand, frozen and grasping at nothing" sticking out of the top of the wreckage. Up until the time that little hand was uncovered, they were only looking for a single victim. A family of five was in the small fuselage.

A lone deputy coroner directed the recovery effort. They painstakingly peeled back layers of metal to uncover the victims. It took over four hours. The deputy repeatedly radioed for assistance. None ever came. There were numerous search and rescue, fire personnel, and chaplains, but there were no other deputies--no support from his peers.

The first victim was only seven. His little body was mangled and broken like a pitiful rag doll--his head bashed open. Next was a decapitated toddler. His head was found in the engine compartment. The deputy next pulled out a 12-year old, missing his entire forehead. The mother was removed in two large pieces. The dad was just a mass of bones and flesh. Each victim was personally handled by the deputy, with occasional assistance from a "70-year-old search and rescue volunteer".

Not surprisingly, the deputy was very quiet, even with the chaplain. It was later learned the deputy didn't go out of service after leaving the scene. He personally went through the family's luggage. He reviewed the hundreds of photos he took of the crash scene as part of the investigation. Finally, he took the next several days to write the enormous report by himself.

The deputy took a six month leave of absence from the department. He never returned to work.

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