By Jinnie Chua, assistant editor of In Public Safety
First responders deal with trauma and loss on a regular basis, but rarely do they come across a scene as horrific as the Las Vegas shooting. The gunman, identified as Stephen Paddock, emptied rounds of bullets from his hotel room into the crowd of concertgoers below, killing 58 people and wounding hundreds more.
The festival grounds, medical tents and hospitals were nothing short of scenes of carnage. In a New York Times article, Glen Simpson from Community Ambulance, which was contracted to provide medical services at the country music festival, described some of the difficult choices medical personnel had to make. In many cases, despite pleas from family members, they were forced to bypass CPR on those whose hearts had already stopped.
“I saw my personnel checking for pulses, realizing the person did not have a pulse, and we literally had to push the body out of the tent and make room for another patient,” Simpson told the Times.
As the country struggles to make sense of the massacre in Las Vegas and the wounded continue to recover, it is important that the needs of those who responded to the scene are not overlooked. Police agencies, fire departments, and emergency management services must also make sure that services are available to help their personnel recover from the trauma.
The Role of Agencies after the Las Vegas Shooting
A deadly attack at the scale of the Las Vegas shooting can almost certainly be a trigger for trauma and stress-related disorders among first responders. Mental health problems such as depression, insomnia, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and even suicidal thoughts and actions can arise.
Especially after a mass-casualty event, many first responders believe that they shouldn’t ask for help or will put their own problems aside to help others. Agencies must remind them that their mental health deserves attention and must be addressed if they are to continue helping others at the best of their abilities.
Agencies and leaders can take several proactive steps to implement programs that will help first responders recover from traumatic events.
Critical Incident Stress Management
In many agencies, Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) programs have become an essential part of supporting first responders after traumatic experiences. CISM teams should be automatically deployed after a particularly difficult call, such as a line-of-duty death or a mass-casualty incident.
In a safe setting away from the public and the media, trained professionals are brought in to help first responders process the incident. They encourage responders to share their thoughts and provide information about the responses they might experience, such as highs and lows, sleeplessness, a change in eating habits, and sexual dysfunction. They can also provide tips and resources to help first responders manage the short- and long-term effects of trauma.
“These team members help responders understand that they are having a normal reaction to an abnormal event,” said Dr. Chuck Russo, program director of criminal justice at American Military University. Russo is a founding member of his Florida police agency’s Critical Incident Stress Team (CIST). He is also the team leader for Florida’s Regional Disaster Behavioral Health Assessment Team where he oversees a network of mental health professionals and trained volunteers who provide services to first responders.
“Many responders end up playing the ‘what if’ game. Some feel guilty about not helping more people or think they could’ve done more to change the outcome,” said Russo. “This can add to the stress a responder is feeling, so it’s important for CIST members to help responders prepare to experience an array of emotions.”
Internal peer-support programs work alongside CISM programs and give first responders the opportunity to seek out support at their own time. Individuals selected to be peer-support team members are trained to provide emotional support, guidance, and an empathetic ear to their fellow comrades.
Peer-support programs work particularly well because many first responders feel comfortable talking to people they know and who have gone through similar experiences. Although peer-support members cannot always provide the level of therapy that some first responders need, they should be able to refer those who need it to clinicians who specialize in trauma-informed care.
In addition to providing direct support for first responders, agencies should also consider programs that involve educating spouses and families. It’s important that spouses know what to expect after a loved one has experienced such trauma.
“Spouses are the ones who will pick up on changes in a person’s personality and changes in their sleeping, eating or mood,” said Russo. “They need to know what is a normal reaction and what is beyond normal or self-destructive so they know when to seek help.”
In the aftermath of the Las Vegas shooting, these programs are essential for creating a supportive environment. Whether it’s through peer support, CISM, or a friendly phone call, the key is to address the mental and psychological impact on first responders before it becomes overwhelming or debilitating. Agencies must ensure that their personnel do not also become victims.