How to prepare and handle Extreme Events

Katie is a board-certified Psychologist in police and public safety. She does 100% of her work with first responders and their agencies in a variety of capacities and works with families after extreme and critical incidences.

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My assistant Nicole is the child of a cop, sibling of a cop, a former cop herself, and the wife of an Air Force Officer. She and I have talked about concerns that she has about the safety of her son at school, due to shootings. She has expressed concern that there’s more that kids could do than what the schools may know to tell them. She not only talks to her son about this but makes sure he knows how to keep himself safe if such a horrible event was to occur at his school. Law enforcement families have different perspectives and are impacted differently. When these events occur, they come home in a different way and impact not only the officer but the family in a very different way.

I recognize that these events don’t only happen at schools, however, schools are starting throughout the country, and honestly, Uvalde is still on my mind because I’m a counselor that lives in Texas. When Dr. Katherine Kuhlman offered to come on and talk about mass events, I moved to get her on the podcast. She has been speaking on national media outlets about these events and their impact on communities and law enforcement. It’s possible that this one may be triggering. Today, Katie discusses the impact of these events on law enforcement families and how to move through them successfully.

Katie is a board-certified Psychologist in police and public safety. She does 100% of her work with first responders and their agencies in a variety of capacities and works with families after extreme and critical incidences. Not only in officer involved shootings, but also in mass shootings.  She presented nationally on wellness issues related to law enforcement, as well as school safety issues, and served as a subject matter expert on traumatic stress on the Colorado governor’s expert Emergency Epidemic Response Committee before she moved to Arizona.

We have been through a lot of mass shootings lately, and as a first responder family, these situations impact us differently.

What makes something an extreme event and how are extreme events different from officer involved shootings or critical incidences?

The biggest difference is that officers are very well trained to handle critical incidents (officer involved shootings, fatal motor vehicle accidents, sex assault cases, etc.) When we think of extreme events, these are events that typically have a higher body count and they are events that officers can’t necessarily train for. Yes, officers do active shooter training, but there is nothing that can mentally prepare an officer for what they will encounter if they are going to walk into a school shooting. In any kind of building where there’s an active shooter, the police’s goal is to neutralize the threat and not necessarily to save people. One of the most traumatic things about these extreme events is the officer’s senses are completely overloaded. It’s also the idea of the task at hand is one that maybe others might not understand, while your body has to resist, identifying and taking care of those immediate situations such as injured individuals or stepping over the deceased.

The Impact of Extreme Events

After extreme events, psychological trauma can occur for the officers, their families, and the entire community where the event took place can happen.

When we have these extreme events, the medical footprint compared to the psychological footprint is much smaller. The psychological footprint includes all of the people who were on scene, their families, as well as the officers who weren’t on scene and individuals within the community. A lot of times officers who weren’t present wish they were. They want to help. That’s what they are drawn to do.

Officers who deal with these incredibly traumatic mass casualty situations might not ever be the same. They will relive the situation over in their head, second guess themselves and worry about the “what ifs?” You don’t want the husband or the wife you married to become a shell of a person or somebody who’s going to have an entire personality change.

Children are incredibly impacted as well because they worry about the safety of their officer/parent, and they don’t always have the cognizance that maybe an adult would have regarding the training that their parent has. This can cause ripple effects of nightmares and separation anxiety.

If you are involved in an extreme event, part of your healing process may be finding a purpose from the event. Start a program that can help the community be more prepared. Offer peer support groups for others involved. Help schools identify weak points in their training. Find meaning and purpose and grow from that to help alleviate feeling like a victim. Empower, educate, and get involved.

Criticism

After extreme events, criticism of how the event was handled can impact the officers and their families as well. Most criticism and second-guessing from the community goes unfounded. When there are investigations that take place, it is important to not criticize the individual officer and create an impact. Most times, these officers are working under the direct orders of someone above them. How do they choose to, either follow their chief’s orders or their gut? They don’t want to lose their job and they also don’t want to make the wrong decision. It’s not their fault. There’s one person whose fault it is and that’s the shooter.

Reactions that officers and spouses have after an extreme event

A lot of times, they’re similar to critical incidents. You can expect irritability, isolation, withdrawal, and an increase in substance use. This is not just a traumatic event. This is something big that impacts you, your family, and your entire community. There is going to be an overwhelming feeling with people asking questions, but also people offering support. When all you want to do is just spend time with the people that you care about, support can be overwhelming as well. There can be separation anxiety and a fear of sending your children to school after an extreme event. This can go both ways and your children may not want to go to school either.

It is important to know that these reactions after an extreme event are the normal process that your body and your mind are going to go through. Your brain is there to keep you safe, not make you happy.

How do we support officers after they have been involved in an extreme event?

There’s so much media attention surrounding these events and they unfold over such a longer amount of time because the investigations take longer. That means rolling adrenaline rushes and dumps over weeks. As a spouse and as a family member, recognize and validate these hormonal changes. It doesn’t give your officer a free pass to not do anything, but it does mean that you are empathizing with their irritability and know that it doesn’t come from a place of hurt.

Connect with the department’s peer support teams to make sure your needs are met. If racing thoughts or intrusions are occurring without being triggered, or if you notice the urge to withdraw, dissociate or numb out, seek out professional help. These are all signs of trauma that need to be addressed. Post-Traumatic Stress in an Injury, not a disorder. Just like with a bone that is broken, the earlier the treatment, the faster it heals.

As a spouse, make sure you have good relationships with other spouses in the department so that you can keep that line of communication open. One of the most anxiety-provoking things, when there’s an event like this is that you don’t have information. You’re on the edge of your seat, waiting to hear what’s going on and what’s the next thing. Having that communication is huge and that’s important for departments to know as well. If you are on a command staff or executive level, making sure that information is getting out to officers and their families is critical.

 How do we help protect our kids in school?

It is important to note the fact that your child is probably safer at school than anywhere else. That’s the reality. The base rate of a school shooting is so incredibly low. However, it doesn’t mean we can’t help them be prepared.

First things first. Find out what the school protocol is in reference to an active shooter situation. Keep in mind that some schools may not be very forthcoming with that type of information for safety purposes. If that is the case, ask your child what an active shooter drill looks like. Ask them everything you can possibly think of in regard to the layout of their school. What do they do if they aren’t with their teacher? What if they are at lunch, in the hallway, in the bathroom, or outside if an active shooter situation happens? Based on the age of your child, teach them what to do to keep themselves safe. If they are in a bathroom, can they climb into a big enough trashcan and hide? If they are in the lunchroom, are there exits nearby? Are there places to hide? Help provide answers to questions that the school may not have addressed within drills.

If your child has a phone, come up with a code word that they can remember and quickly text. It needs to be something that only your family would know. It’s a quick way to communicate in a time of emergency that doesn’t involve a phone call and it just can allow people to respond and know at the moment without having to explain too much. When people are in crisis our brains aren’t working as well. We have a hard time getting the words out. We don’t really always know exactly what’s going on.

These extreme events are going to be a part of our world. Remind yourself that police departments train for these situations. The more muscle memory that our officers create or that we can create will help us to know what to do. Create some drills within your own family or create code words. Keep an eye on each other after an event like this takes place and make sure we find purpose afterward to impact others in a positive way.

LinkedIn: Dr. Katherine Kuhlman

Twitter: Dr_KKuhlman

www.drkuhlman.com

Katherine@drkuhlman

LinkedIn: Cyndi Doyle

Instagram: Code4Couples

www.code4couples.com

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How to prepare and handle Extreme Events

Katie is a board-certified Psychologist in police and public safety. She does 100% of her work with first responders and their agencies in a variety of capacities and works with families after extreme and critical incidences.

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