Vol. 79, No. 2Panel discussion

RCMP vehicle parked next to forest fire.

How can police be best prepared for emergencies?

The panellists

  • Insp. Mark Hancock, OIC Investigative Services, Wood Buffalo detachment, RCMP
  • Chief Michael Kehoe, retired, Newtown Police Department, Connecticut
  • Roxane Marois, chief psychologist, RCMP

Responding to emergency incidents like natural disasters and shootings can be stressful on a number of levels. We know having the right tools and support on hand can help during the response and recovery. But how can first responders and other employees prepare ahead? We asked our panellists what they think police and support workers can do today to ready themselves for a crisis.

Insp. Mark Hancock

During the first week of May 2016, the City of Fort McMurray and surrounding area was home to one of the largest disasters in Canadian history. A massive wildfire burning near the city jumped the Athabasca River, causing the fire to rapidly burn out of control. The fire engulfed the city and burned several residential areas in succession. The entire city was placed on a mandatory evacuation order. The RCMP Wood Buffalo detachment, bylaw officers and sheriffs worked tirelessly to successfully get residents to safety, in less than six hours.

Due to local floods in 2013, the Wood Buffalo RCMP had already established an Emergency Operations Center (EOC) room within the detachment. During the wildfire, the EOC had a direct phone line to the municipal Regional Emergency Operations Centre (REOC). The EOC was used for incident command and was instrumental in organizing and executing the initial response and evacuation of the community. The REOC was able to quickly communicate messages to the detachment EOC about the communities being evacuated and the best routes to take.

Every detachment requires emergency operations plans. These plans outline the steps required for major events. They are to be updated, relevant and shared with detachment personnel. These plans are to be used as soon as possible during this type of incident, as this helps keep responses as organized as possible during periods of high stress.

Training and experience are very important when dealing with a large-scale incident. Mock disaster and high-level incident scenarios enhance every team's ability to respond to the real thing. Wood Buffalo detachment had run some mock scenarios and table-top exercises over the past two years and had trained several members in various incident command courses. This enabled members to set up an incident command environment and also establish logistical supports (food, water, lodging for responders) early.

The Alberta RCMP's Senior Management Team and the Wood Buffalo detachment held debriefings post wildfire, to discuss areas that could be strengthened. Communication was at the top of the list. It's difficult to send enough information to all the members and teams involved in an incident of this magnitude. The Government of Alberta and RCMP in Alberta are working to establish the new Alberta First Responder Radio Communications System throughout Alberta, including Fort McMurray. This radio system is designed to support a co-ordinated approach to radio communications with all first responders.

Supplies are also something that can be prepared in advance. Wood Buffalo detachment now has four large locked metal bins that store enough food and water for 72 hours, as well as enough masks for the entire detachment.

The response to the Fort McMurray wildfires was largely positive. About 88,000 people were successfully evacuated. While reacting to an incident of this magnitude is essential, proactive preparation is key to ensuring that we respond in a more efficient manner when the next crisis comes.

Chief Michael Kehoe (ret.)

Emergencies by their very nature are unforeseeable, dangerous situations that occur to communities and individuals. First responders such as police, fire and emergency medical services are typically the government representatives asked to respond with immediate, decisive action to mitigate loss of life, loss of property and injury to persons.

Police officers today receive an enormous amount of basic training to effectively deal with a wide range of complex situations they'll be asked to formally deal with. A great majority of the time, they successfully bring intensely complex and dynamic events to a beneficial close.

However, occasionally an emergency will happen that challenges the most veteran and experienced officer. It may be a situation where very little training and understanding exists. But oftentimes, it's something that an officer has been given some training in but didn't realize the immense intensity and challenges they would face.

To be best prepared for any emergencies, you must develop skills, abilities and competencies that can transcend all emergencies. Knowledgeable capacities developed through time on the job or the colloquial "on-the-job-training," only take an officer so far when reacting to and effectively maneuvering within the fields of horror, pain and heartache associated with a tragic crisis.

To be professionally prepared for any emergency, a person, especially a police officer, has to have the right mindset. Confidence combined with unique and specifically useful competencies will bridge many gaps that exist with dynamic, ever-changing and challenging events.

Police officers must take a personal interest on their own. Being engaged fully in the right mindset to be the best that you can be will go a long way in preparing yourself for an emergency. Therefore, a holistic approach is necessary not only for daily survival, but long-term health. Proper sleep and diet, and a rigorous exercise routine will lay a foundation for health well beyond retirement.

Just as important as the body is the mind or brain. Individually speaking, practising mindfulness or exercising the mind builds brain resiliency and improves work engagement thereby enhancing overall employee well-being and organizational performance.

Mental wellness programs or policies are essential for organizations to adopt internally. Employee Assistance Programs, peer to peer systems, yearly mental wellness "physicals" or checkups, a chaplaincy connection and limiting exposure to psychological trauma are a few foundational interventions that an agency can use to ensure healthy minds. Along with their family, these programs become an integral part of an officer's stable support system.

In the end, a law enforcement officer can be best prepared when he or she is trained properly, is in the proper mindset, practises mindfulness and has taken a personal interest in their mind and body.

Roxane Marois

Dealing with emergency situations is part of the job for RCMP officers and employees. Responding to citizens in crisis, investigating violent crime scenes, identifying potential threats to national security, and tracking down an active shooter, our men and women have to be ready to face the unexpected.

Every situation is unique, yet there are issues and reactions that are consistent in all emergencies for which law enforcement can develop and improve resilience. From a psychosocial viewpoint, police officers and operational support personnel must be ready to respond straightaway, they must have the ability to deal with adversity/volatility/danger, and they must be able to bounce back in order to face new challenges.

It's possible to prepare psychologically for difficult situations: trust in yourself and your training, listen to yourself and others, be open to the ideas of others, be willing to change the way you do things, and believe you can grow even in adversity.

In addition to professional police training, we have several tools at our disposal to consolidate our trust in our ability to overcome challenges and be resilient. Resources include the RCMP's Road to Mental Readiness training, suicide prevention training, the online critical incident debriefing course, and sessions with RCMP psychologists in the aftermath of critical events. Seek out these resources as needed.

It's important to listen to your body, your thoughts and your feelings. Have your sleep patterns or appetite changed? Have you lost interest in your favourite pastime? Has your supervisor noticed you're making more mistakes? These are clear indicators that something is amiss.

Some people extol the virtues of visualization techniques, and others advocate the importance of physical fitness. Sometimes changing your habits can help: quit smoking, eat a more balanced diet, don't use alcohol as a crutch. Mental health professionals are also available to talk and support you through your personal and professional journey.

When you're thrust into an emergency and suddenly are no longer your usual stable self, it can be unsettling. You might feel shattered, cornered, unable to go on, extremely angry. To regain your footing, step back from the situation to make sense of it. In the aftermath of an emergency or crisis, for many, getting back to normal will happen on its own over the next few days.

Given their emotional attachment, family, friends and colleagues are often unable to be objective as you search for meaning and balance. For some, it may be necessary to talk to a professional, in a confidential setting, for objective advice on how to regain the ability to bounce back and face future emergency/crisis situations.

Consulting a mental health professional is a golden opportunity to learn, grow as a person and maintain resilience. There's no shame in reaching out to Employee Assistance Services, the divisional psychologist or community resources. It's important to take ownership of your mental health.

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