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Critical incident debriefing helps keep staff balanced.

It is 7 a.m. in a maximum security correctional facility. The midnight shift officer sits at his desk, unconcerned as inmates file past him on their way to breakfast, just as they do day after day. But this time, suddenly and without warning, a fight breaks out near the officer's desk. An inmate severs another's ear with a folded can cover and cuts a gaping wound in his neck. Blood sprays everywhere. The officer rises to his feet as the fight continues, but he cannot move to summon help.

In another incident, a disturbance erupts in a recreation yard. A wall tower officer fires a warning shot that quells the situation. When a relief officer arrives at the tower, he must pry the weapon from the tower officer's hands.

Critical incidents such as these occur frequently in correctional facilities, but almost never when staff are prepared. When they do occur, they can have a tremendous effect on an employee's emotional well-being. Confusion, sweating, depression, anger, grief and changes in eating and sleep habits are some symptoms of a stress reaction. If allowed to continue, these symptoms can lead to serious disorders. Alcoholism, divorce, suicide and loss of job could result if an employee does not get treatment.

Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD) is a group process developed in the early 1980s by Dr. Jeffrey Mitchell, an associate professor of emergency health services, to help emergency services personnel deal with critical incidents. CISD can help forestall this sort of long-term reaction.

The CISD process begins immediately after an incident. Employees involved in an incident meet with peers and a mental health professional to defuse the many emotions they might have after the experience. A formal debriefing follows the initial defusing within 72 hours, and CISD concludes with a follow-up session.

CISD is crucial to maintaining an effective and emotionally balanced staff after an assault, riot, hostage situation or murder. But we must remember that any event that overwhelms a correctional officer's coping mechanism should be cause for concern--not only for the officer's well-being, but also for the effect on his or her job performance and the safety of inmates. Mitchell states, "The type of event is not as important as the impact that event has on the people exposed to it." CISD teams are concerned only with how an incident affects line officers, not how they do their job.

Debriefings must follow specific guidelines to be successful. Confidentiality is a must. Employees should not be debriefed at their own facility or by other staff members. Mental health professionals and peer support personnel make up the CISD team, which may include an employee assistance coordinator, if available, to refer employees to outside help in case they need professional treatment. The team must be well-trained and experienced in debriefing.

Critical Incident Stress Debriefing is structured as follows:

Introduction: Ground rules are set.

Fact Phase: Participants tell their story about the event.

Thought Phase: Participants state their first thoughts upon exposure to the worst part of the incident.

Reaction Phase: Participants share their feelings about the incident.

Symptom Phase: The group discusses what has changed in their lives since the incident.

Teaching Phase: The team provides reassurance that what the group is experiencing is a normal reaction to a bad incident.

Re-entry Phase: The group asks questions, and summary statements are made.

CISD may seem simple, but it can become complicated quickly if an inexperienced team member makes inappropriate remarks or cannot deal with extreme emotions. Training, experience and dedication are the keys to a successful program.

Stress in corrections is a serious problem. The job of a corrections officer has been described as long stretches of boredom interspersed with moments of terror. These moments of terror can be devastating to employees if stress debriefing is not part of their facility's response to critical incidents.

Michael Davis, a 25-year veteran with the New York State Department of Correctional Services, is an employee assistance coordinator and advanced debriefer with the Upstate New York CISD Network. For more information on CISD, call him at (518) 639-4478.
COPYRIGHT 1994 American Correctional Association, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1994 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Davis, Michael
Publication:Corrections Today
Date:Dec 1, 1994
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