Law Enforcement personnel face multi-faceted and ever-changing challenges in the post-9/11 era. Coping with everyday duties in the shadow of potential future disasters, either natural or man-made, requires specially trained and prepared individuals. It is important that support is engrained in the culture and throughout an officer's career, from the time he or she begins training, and even into retirement.
Many of the challenges in preparing law enforcement personnel for a large-scale disaster arise from the culture of law enforcement itself, particularly when dealing with the psychological component of a disaster. The culture of law enforcement is unique. The numerous compounding forces law enforcement personnel face on a daily basis are some of the reasons why it is hard for them to seek help. For example, law enforcement personnel are used to helping others, but are not used to asking for help themselves. In addition, seeking help may be seen as a sign of weakness, and that if the need for help is acknowledged and/or sought, it is possible that an officer's service weapon will be taken away. These and many other cultural aspects of the job are factors that inhibit seeking support. Despite these cultural challenges however, if a law enforcement officer is in need of assistance, he or she must get the support needed.
When families understand the culture of the law enforcement community, it can increase the family's ability to support their loved one. For example, law enforcement personnel must be able to command complete control over emergency situations in order to assure a positive outcome. In the event of a disaster, very little is under control. Officers in this situation can feel "defeated" and even overwhelmed, because of their inability to impact the disaster scene. Family members who understand this part of the culture can anticipate and provide support for frustrations that arise. The benefit of understanding, however, is a two way street. Officers who understand their family's challenges can help trouble-shoot problems and create solutions that will assist the family when they are at work or deployed. Open discussion followed by pre-planning for potential future disasters strengthens both the family and the responder.
Our work with 9/11 law enforcement responders indicates that in addition to experiencing feelings of being overwhelmed related to the disaster, reactions were often triggered in personnel who had experienced previous trauma. Learning to recognize "triggers" is helpful. Triggers can be something like a sight, sound or smell that brings back or "triggers" feelings or reactions from a previous traumatic event. It is a good idea to keep track of things that trigger a reaction and try to avoid them whenever possible. People who experience a trigger usually recover fairly quickly. However, if reactions last for an extended period of time, arise frequently, or impacts the quality or ability of work, an officer should seek assistance from a mental health professional
Even in times of extreme crisis, most public safety personnel are extremely resourceful and continue to perform their duties. It is usually after the incident when feelings experienced as a result of the incident start to weigh on the officer, the co-workers, and the family. During these times, positive help-seeking behaviors can greatly assist the healing of the officer.
When law enforcement personnel have difficulty coping with their disaster responses, they may become unable to effectively perform their duties. For this and many other reasons, support programming is in place to mitigate, as much as possible, the psychological toll of a disaster or traumatic incident. Both departmental and non-departmental assistance may be available. To find out more about what resources are available for you or your family, ask your medical provider, a member of your EAP, a peer counselor or a police chaplain.
For more information on challenges impacting law enforcement personnel during disasters and how to cope with them, download a copy of "Our Challenges, Our Responses," developed for 9/11 Pentagon responders.