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Emergency! Stress in security!

Emergency! Stress in Security!

FRIDAY, JANUARY 11, 1991. JOHN reported to his post at 6:00 pm sharp, the same way he had reported almost every Friday for the past six years. He was a young, aggressive, well-educated officer, soon to be promoted to sergeant. Well known for his smile and willingness to help, John was a welcome relief to the thousands of travelers making their way through the airport each day.

Fridays were busy at the airport, and today was no exception. People pushed and shoved their way through ticket lines and terminal gates at a frantic pace. To the masses of people fighting their way home for the weekend, it was just another hectic Friday commute. But something was missing. The upbeat mood and smile that John had become known for were nowhere to be found. Instead, John was pensive, tense, and preoccupied due to the stress at work and at home.

The argument with his wife just prior to leaving for work had been the worst yet. It was unlike John to argue, but he was exhausted. With two officers out injured, his shift had been running short on coverage for the last several weeks. John had been averaging three additional shifts a week for more than a month now, a fact his wife found extremely distressing in view of the recent arrival of their first child.

The pressure of the upcoming sergeant's exam was weighing heavily on John as well and had been the source of several heated discussions at home. The threat of war in the Persian Gulf had increased security at the airport to its highest level, creating longer than usual lines and angry travelers.

As the tension mounted in the endless line before him, so too did the pounding in John's head. The pain of the headache was so intense that John was finding it hard to concentrate or even focus. Distracted and exhausted, he was caught off guard and unprepared when it happened.

The first explosion shook the building with a force equal to a severe earthquake. The plate-glass window to his left disintegrated into thousands of tiny pieces, creating an explosive, synthetic rain that swept over most of the people in line. The second explosion followed quickly, producing an enormous fireball and billows of hot, acrid smoke.

John fought his way through the terrified crowd to the exit door that led to the runway. It was at that point that he caught his first glimpse of the ill-fated 747. The massive plane had collided with a smaller commuter aircraft taxiing for takeoff.

The fuselage was torn away in three different places, and the aircraft was fully engulfed in flames. The rescue mission John was about to take part in would continue for the next 14 hours. The paper would report 26 dead and 73 others seriously injured.

Reporters and news crews would interview victims and their families, telling of the tragedy and stress associated with the unfortunate incident. For the next two or three days readers would discover how the accident had affected its victims, the environment, air travel, and the economy. Sad to say, there would not be any article on how the accident had affected John or his other coworkers.

ALTHOUGH CRITICAL INCIDENT STRESS is most frequently associated with fire fighters and police officers, it certainly plays an important role in the life of the security professional as well. Security officers are exposed to the same traumatic incidents, the same extreme working conditions, the same grueling shift work, and the same challenge of balancing a personal and professional life.

It only makes sense that the dedicated members of this profession be offered the same opportunity and help that their peers have been provided. Developing a critical incident stress team within your organization will help to protect your most important and valuable resource--your personnel.

Emergency response providers, including fire fighters, police, security professionals, and rescue personnel, are continually called on to respond to incidents involving trauma outside the range of normal human emotion. In many cases we ask, and even expect, emergency care providers to take care of our needs while ignoring their own in the process of their work.

The fact that an individual wears a badge or a uniform makes him or her no less susceptible to the symptoms and diseases associated with prolonged or cumulative stress. Repeated exposure to stressful situations may lead to physical, cognitive, emotional, and behavioral disorders.

Although the story mentioned earlier was fictitious, it was based on an actual incident and is designed to emphasize the importance of critical incident stress.

The subject of stress and how it relates to the workplace has received a great deal of attention over the last several years. Stress has been defined as a state of response, as one attempts to adapt to stressors. Stressors are usually considered occurrences requiring adaptation and may be pleasant or unpleasant depending on the situation.

Employers are finding that stress now accounts for much of their employees' absenteeism, lack of productivity, and increasing health care costs. We have learned, however, that not all stress is negative. Positive stress helps us remain competitive and in many cases provides the incentive for us to realize our full potential. Our problems arise when the positive stress in our lives becomes so extreme that we start to experience negative side effects.

Research has identified a number of different sources for stress, including psychosocial stress, bioecological-environmental stress, and personality stress.

Psychosocial stress is created by the minor problems and inconveniences we encounter every day. Traffic jams, detours, waiting in line at the supermarket, and being late for appointments are all examples of psychosocial stress. Bioecological/environmental stress includes working in extreme weather, dealing with the public, problems with one's managers, and limited opportunities for career advancement.

Personality stress is generated internally by sources including perfectionism, codependency, type A behavior, and obsessive-compulsive tendencies. It's not unusual to find individuals with these traits providing emergency services as their career, but the effects of these traits add up.

Few, if any of these stressors, in and of themselves, are enough to incapacitate an individual. Unfortunately, rescue personnel, who must deal with these stressors daily, are not usually allowed the luxury of dealing with stressful situations on an isolated basis.

These everyday occurrences have a tendency to accumulate, a process referred to as "stacking," and result in producing cumulative stress. In our story, it was cumulative stress that rendered John unprepared to deal with his impending disaster.

We mentioned earlier that emergency care providers often respond to situations involving extreme trauma. Those situations may involve a crisis, a disaster, or a critical incident. A crisis usually involves an individual and can be defined as a serious interruption in equilibrium.

Although upsetting for the individual experiencing it, a crisis can usually be resolved in a short period, with few if any long-term effects. A disaster is an event that stresses a society, a portion of that society, or an individual family beyond the limits of daily living. Disasters can be devastating and almost always require a longer period of recovery for all those involved.

A critical incident is considered to be an event that has sufficient emotional power to overwhelm an individual's ability to cope. The effects can be immediate, appear later, or both. These effects may include physical, cognitive, or emotional reactions and often present themselves as a change in normal behavior.

It's not unusual to see emergency personnel experiencing some of these disorders after taking part in a critical incident. Left untreated for any period of time, however, these symptoms can result in a more serious situation known as posttraumatic stress disorder.

The concept of critical incident stress is relatively new, having been developed within the last decade. For years we recognized and were sensitive to the stress associated with victims who had been exposed to extreme trauma. It was not until the early 1980s that Dr. Jeffrey T. Mitchell and Dr. George S. Everly made us aware of the stress that emergency care providers were experiencing as a result of responding to repeated calls for emergency service.

Their research revealed that exposing emergency personnel to critical incidents on a repeated basis could result in a profound, negative effect on the health and well-being of the individual. In an effort to address this situation, Mitchell and Everly developed a procedure known as a critical incident stress debriefing (CISD).

Mitchell and Everly define the CISD process as a "peer driven, clinically guided intervention, designed to mitigate the effects of stress resulting from incidents involving extreme trauma." Although the definition may be confusing, the concept is quite simple. It's important for emergency personnel to acknowledge, accept, and talk about their stress in order to relieve it.

Mitchell and Everly found that fire, police, rescue, and security personnel who were willing to talk about their traumatic experience had a tendency to recover faster, remain healthy and productive, and avoid developing symptoms that could lead to posttraumatic stress disorders. The message was clear. Individuals choosing a career in the emergency services needed the opportunity to discuss their feelings openly.

CISD teams are composed of two basic elements: health care professionals, including psychologists and psychiatrists, and peer support personnel, consisting of members of the particular organization. Critical incident stress debriefings are usually held within 24 to 72 hours of the incident and provide an opportunity for the healing process to begin.

These stress debriefings can last anywhere from two to five hours, and the results can be dramatic. CISD teams all over the country are reporting success in their efforts to reduce the recovery time required by emergency responders suffering from critical incident stress. Organizations are now able to reduce the absenteeism and health care costs historically associated with exposure to trauma in the workplace. The result is a healthy and more productive work force.

Other types of interventions are available to deal with these issues including defusings, demobilizations, and spousal academies. The possibilities are exciting and virtually endless. This discussion only scratches the surface in this important area. One thing is certain, however. At long last, this often forgotten but dedicated segment of our society is finally beginning to receive the help and attention it so justly deserves.

Michael G. McCourt is president of Michael G. McCourt Associates in Newton Lower Falls, MA. He is a member of ASIS.
COPYRIGHT 1991 American Society for Industrial Security
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:critical incident stress
Author:McCourt, Michael G.
Publication:Security Management
Date:Aug 1, 1991
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