By Jody MacPherson

The smoke has cleared, the debris lies scattered and the devastation is frightening. Emotions charge the air with an electricity powerful enough to feel — pain, fear, hope, anger, helplessness, guilt, frustration, elation, grief and bewilderment.

It’s the aftermath of a crisis. The victims have been taken to hospital, the fires have been doused and the emergency response crews have gone home. But the final chapter of this story has yet to be written. It is the chapter where someone helps the emergency response crews.

Syncrude is writing that final chapter into its emergency response. Chris Boyce, employee assistance program (EAP) counselor, is trained to conduct critical incident stress debriefings.

“People involved in emergency response sometimes take care of others at their own expense,” says Chris. “After an incident they usually do an operational critique, but this is different. A debriefing doesn’t look at procedures, it takes care of people.”

She says the debriefings are a psychological and educational process to ease the impact of a critical incident and to accelerate the “normal recovery of normal people with normal reactions to abnormal events.” A critical incident is any event that has sufficient emotional power to overwhelm the individual’s usual ability to cope.

The majority of people will get through each incident but it is estimated that four to five percent of those involved will need further help, like counseling.

“But we can never predict who or when that four to five percent will be,” she says.

“Sometimes people get so overwhelmed that they don’t know what to do. They are trained to put their feelings on hold in order to do what has to be done,” says Chris.

The debriefing offers a period of ventilation in a safe environment and educational information regarding stress during a crisis, she says. It should be held within 48 to 72 hours after an incident.

Chris has been trained by Jeff Mitchell, a recognized expert in the field. He says that a critical incident stress debriefing is one of the most important ways to properly prevent and manage rescue stress.

The session should be lead by a facilitator, a co-facilitator and a peer support group made up of people with the same technical background who were not directly involved in the critical incident. For example, she says arrangements are being made to have firefighters from another shift participate in debriefings with firefighters who’ve experienced a critical incident.

“The main thing is just to talk about it. It’s one of the unwritten rules of emergency response that you’re not supposed to cry or show any emotions, but we’ve got to show them it’s okay to be an emergency response person and still feel,” she says.

Chris says the group situation allows people to hear each other and share similar feelings. One person usually starts and that triggers a thought from someone else. It gives everyone an opportunity to “make things feel normal again.”

“It helps speed up the healing process. A lot of times these people will just grit their teeth and keep going, but if it’s not dealt with they could be in trouble down the road.”

She says not dealing with your feelings may lead to an illness called “post-traumatic stress disorder.”

Chris says a critical incident stress debriefing must be requested. If there is a group of people who have been through an overwhelming experience, she should
be contacted to lead a debriefing session. Individuals can be better counseled on an individual basis, she says. Both the individual and the group sessions are completely confidential.

Chris says she follows up the debriefing several weeks later to check how everyone is coping with their feelings about the incident.

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