Critical Incident Stress Teams: Do You Have One?

A hostage situation.

A plane crash.

A shooting.

Any situation that results in serious injuries, deaths, and/or other tragedies constitutes a “critical incident,” and the stress related to those incidents can be just as life-altering as the physical injuries sustained by survivors. Because first responders deal with highly stressful incidents like these on a regular basis, it is important to have a critical incident stress team in place to help first responders process the images, sounds, and experiences that occurred during the critical incident that will stay with them for a lifetime.

What Constitutes ‘Critical Incident Stress’?

Critical incident stress” is a term that refers to the stress reactions experienced by many first responders after being first on the scene to help in a critical incident like the ones described above. The mental and physical stress responses can be incredibly upsetting to the person. Early recognition and assistance can be key to helping someone manage these symptoms before they become overwhelming.

Critical incident stress may begin within a few hours or days of the event and fall into four categories:

  • Cognitive: Thought processes can change after experiencing a critical incident. Some examples of cognitive stress symptoms include memory loss, decreased ability to concentrate and focus, and having a harder time solving problems and making decisions.
  • Emotional: Feelings can run high after a critical stress incident. Emotional stress symptoms can include feelings of grief, guilt, fear, depression, anxiety, and feeling overwhelmed, out of control, and/or lost.
  • Physical: Physical health and wellness can be impacted by a critical incident as well, even if the person was not physically injured on site. Physical stress symptoms can include chest pain, breathing issues, high blood pressure, muscle tremors, headaches, and/or gastrointestinal difficulties.
  • Behavioral: The way a person behaves and reacts to others can change in the days and weeks following a critical incident as well. Behavioral stress symptoms can include out-of-character behaviors, insomnia and/or nightmares, altered eating habits, altered work habits, and/or often acting aloof or distanced from others.

First responders may experience a combination of the symptoms described above. The more symptoms and the more intense those symptoms, the higher the stress level and the higher the risk of long-term harm.

The Role of a Critical Incident Stress Team

A critical incident stress team can help to decrease the experience of post-traumatic stress disorder in first responders by:

  • Coming to the workplace as soon after a critical incident as possible, preferably within the first 48 hours
  • Providing workshops to the organization about different topics related to stress reduction and how to recognize signs and symptoms of PTSD
  • Facilitating group sessions that provide a safe forum for participants to share their experience and connect with one another
  • Speaking to individuals who request a private audience to ask questions or discuss potential issues and how to address them effectively

The earlier you can get a critical incident stress team into the workplace, the more likely it is that you will be able to ensure that all involved in the event have the support they need to remain functional and healthy on the job and at home.

This article was originally published by Michael Healy, Fire Chief, Central Nyack Fire Dept, NY and Treatment Consultant for Fire Service at American Addiction Centers, on LinkedIn.

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