December 15, 2017

The Critical Incident Context

Professor Elizabeth Kirby of Central Michigan University

Beyond events in schools, ACIA also sought to find insights and lessons from other critical incidents and in exploring the nature of critical incidents and of critical incident response.

One obvious issue is the policy consequences of critical incidents. After a disaster or a shocking terrorist or criminal event, government agencies and political leaders face, or believe they face, an imperative to do something in response. There is a need to show concern, to demonstrate effectiveness and control, to reassure frightened or grieving constituents that no such tragedy will be allowed to happen again — or if it does, it will be handled better and with less damage. So they pass a law, appoint a commission, launch an official inquiry, hold hearings, issue an administrative order, reorganize bureaucratic structures, revise management procedures and policy guidelines and contingency plans — or, not infrequently, all of the above. Jeff Stern reminded the ACIA gathering that political concerns always underlie crisis response: “We have to understand that policymaking takes place in a political context. Policy is made by politicians and it’s the politics in the U.S. that drive our policy outcomes.” He recalled a first-hand glimpse of the process:

When the Virginia Tech tragedy took place I happened to be working as a White House Fellow. I was part of a team that was tasked with rewriting the homeland security strategies to include the lessons from Katrina.  In less than 24 hours after the shootings at Virginia Tech, our staff supported a visit from the president so he could play mourner-in-chief. I wondered from a psychological and sociological perspective what is the impact of that script playing out so quickly. It happened how it happened, for good or for bad. But I personally thought maybe it was a little too fast. And that fits the way policy is made. When you are reporting to the president or are a staffer in Congress, you don’t score points by sitting back and waiting the way we do in academia. You score points by doing something. You can get the president to issue an executive order, issue a directive or write a national strategy.

As laws, policy directives, plans and bureaucratic structures multiply, so do stakeholders — individuals and institutions with their own viewpoints and interests.

This occurs not only in executive agencies but also in the legislature, which passes laws and then oversees how they are administered. No one questions the need for oversight, but when it becomes fragmented, as often results from U.S. congressional tradition and practice, it can become a distraction for those in charge of preparing and managing crisis response. Stern cited the 9-11 Commission’s finding that no fewer than 86 congressional committees and subcommittees had some degree of oversight over the federal Department of Homeland Security after its creation in 2003. Every member of those committees, he pointed out, is a stakeholder with power and authority to weigh in on policy decisions — often, with interests that are parochial rather than national, especially when decisions involve allocating government funds. The obvious question is whether policy decisions based largely on political considerations are as informed and useful as they should be. As Stern observed:

It’s not like we’re not doing policy. We’re very activist in the U.S. about making policy. A lot of activity and yet we have a lot of mistakes and end up tripping ourselves up.

Betty Kirby tried to identify and describe the phases of a critical incident and its aftermath, and the changing emotional responses that accompany it:

The impact phase refers to the event when it occurs. People are shocked, frightened, looking for help, looking for answers. It’s a relatively short period of time when the event is unfolding. The early aftermath phase begins right after the event happens. It’s often talked about as a time of crisis and chaos where people are trying to make sense of it, ask why. There’s a lot of anxiety during this time. People are starting to assimilate the information they have, for example who has died, who was injured, whom do we know. This doesn’t only apply to the people in the immediate vicinity but also to those who know people who were impacted by the event. The third phase, the short term, may be some weeks in duration, It can be called the processing phase. People are integrating this event and the grief and the loss into their minds in an effort to make sense and accept what has occurred. The final stage is the long term aftermath, during which it’s believed a majority of people will recover or integrate this situation successfully psychologically. However, there will still be a minority who may be impaired for life or may have many distressing episodes for a long long time.

A diagram from Kirby’s presentation shows the steep hill-and-valley course of emotions after a critical event:

Model of Responses to Trauma and Bereavement (Adapted from CMHS, 1994)

Kirby: A review of the literature related to trauma and grief indicates that the process for individuals working through the aftermath of a critical incident is very non-linear and non-cyclical.  The diagram is very representative of the up and down rollercoaster kind of experience that human beings may experience.  The duration of time and degree of ups and downs will vary considerably from one person to the next.