Critical Incident Stress Management Team

I try to touch on a specialty squad each Thursday, and while the following section is a team within the VPD, it is more a peer support group than an operational squad.  Also, this is in direct response to comments regarding my last post, ‘Reptilian Brain Stem’, where I recount an assault on my partner. 

Formed in the mid 1990’s, the Vancouver Police Department’s Critical Incident Stress Management Team (CISM, and formerly called the Trauma Team) was created to address the need for officers involved in serious incidents to receive some type of peer support.  While there are a number of psychologists who assist with the team, the CISM Team is comprised of police officers, and there are several different functions the team fulfills.  As I’ve been a member of the CISM Team since 2003, I can give you an idea of how the team functions.

First off, our mandate is to ‘Do No Harm’.  We are a group of police officers who are ready and willing to listen and help other officers who have been involved in a critical incident.  We are not psychologists, and we are not mental health professionals – we are simply there for peer support, and to give the effected officers information on how their minds and bodies may react after the incident.  Knowledge is power, and by doing this, we prepare officers to be better able to cope with the fallout of a critical incident. 

Our second mandate is confidentiality.  Whatever is said during a debriefing or a defusing stays in the room – if there is no confidentiality with people’s raw emotions, then the team becomes ineffective. 

Third, the CISM Team works closely with a number of psychologists and we go through extensive ongoing training.

Some facts about critical incidents:

  • Critical Incident – a cataclysmic event that serves to overwhelm one’s normal coping mechanism.  An event that is outside the range of a normal or usual human experience.
  • Critical Incident Stress – The body’s normal response to an unnatural situation. 

The Vancouver Police Department has identified the ‘Big Ten’ critical incidents most likely to cause stress:

  • Line of Duty death
  • Line of Duty serious injury
  • Suicide of a co-worker
  • Disaster or multi-casualty incident
  • Police involved shooting
  • Accidental  killing or wounding of a civilian
  • Significant events involving children
  • Prolonged incidents ending in failure
  • Excessive media coverage
  • any other powerful event

So let’s say a group of officers is involved in a call where the suspect is killed.  Everyone involved in the incident is brought together before they are allowed to go home, and the CISM Team conducts a diffusing.  The primary function of the diffusing is to see how everyone is doing, to give everyone a chance to see how their co-workers are, and for the team to pass on some coping tips.  The Team gives the involved members a handout outlining possible stress symptoms they may experience, and points out that all the symptoms are normal. If anyone’s interested on the symptoms, I can do another post with the list.

Then, at a later date (within a week), the same group is brought together again for a debriefing.  This time, a psychologist is present, and the debriefing is conducted at a location other than the police station.  It’s important to remember this is not an operational debrief, this is a check to see how everyone is coping.  Also, if one person says they are not coping well and are not sleeping, it may help the next officer who is feeling the same.  It’s all about ensuring the officers know that their bodies are having a NORMAL response to an UNNATURAL SITUATION. 

All members of the VPD’s CISM Team are trained through the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation, Inc..

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