‘Code one eleven – if I didn’t laugh i’d cry’
Posted on 1st November 2017, by Pete Deane
Stress / Mental Health
Dealing with Fatal Collisions on a daily basis as a UK Police Officer.
This blog aims to raise awareness surrounding the effects of both cumulative fatigue and frequent exposure to traumatic incidents on individuals employed in the police service dealing with fatal road traffic collisions.
It is one year since I resigned from West Yorkshire Police and have had some time to reflect on the stress that can occur in an individual with the sole responsibility of investigating road deaths and serious injuries on a daily basis as part of a dedicated police unit.
When I joined the police service there was no training or manual available on how to deal with a traumatic incident or simply instances involving death. I am unsure if there is today but it is probably impossible to prepare somebody for it. Depending on your life experiences, this may play a part on how you respond to handling these instances. As somebody who had not lost a close loved one when I joined the police service my first interaction with death was sudden deaths and dealing with those incidents as a young probationer. You found ways of dealing with it and everybody is no doubt different in how they deal with death with no rights or wrongs?
I lost a close family member 18 months after joining the police and because of my experience with death in the police service found it difficult to separate how I felt about their passing to that of dealing with a job. I recall kind of going in to work mode a little and shielded my true feelings from coming out at that time.
I was involved in roads policing and started to investigate fatal road collisions. These were done at a district and I would act as officer in the case for them as and when our shift was working and it was ‘my turn’. This meant that I was exposed to dealing with a violent and sudden death and become involved in a traumatic event for some time. I would be unlucky if I got another incident as OIC soon after as it would rotate amongst people on my team and then beyond that the other shifts. So I may act as officer in the case two / three times a year at the most in the district I was placed.
On first encountering these incidents there is a resilience, you have dealt with sudden deaths and despite this now being a road collision I think initially you do become wrapped up in it and your resilience is that of shall I say a normal human being in that you feel incredibly sad about the circumstances and upset about it – I am sure those that have investigated fatal collisions can recall their first. As time goes on and you become exposed more and more to these instances then you tend to ‘toughen up’. It was not until recently that a good friend and former colleague said to me you start to encase yourself in a shell. It’s a coping mechanism. This means you find ways to cope and be professional in the most difficult of circumstances. Effectively not letting your true feelings out.
The investigation of a fatal road collision is in my opinion one of the most difficult types of investigations. You are charged with the investigation of a death with little resources around you. The resourcing of a murder investigation against a road collision is well documented but today even still the road fatality is the poor relation. You have to handle the family that have lost somebody, the witness that was going about their daily business and have seen something horrific, the driver who has never had any police interaction before but has now killed someone and subject of investigation. It is a very difficult role, yet very rewarding.
Despite its difficulties it was a role I loved and when there was to be a dedicated department to investigate these instances across the force area I was the first person with my name down. A unit was set up and I was a part of it. The difference now and what I did not see at the time was now ALL the fatalities for the force area were coming through one door with only a small number of staff to deal with them. This meant that my involvement with those families, witnesses and drivers were not just once or twice a year when I got some respite and recovery between them it was every day for seven years.
Our role was deemed no different to that of the role of a patrol officer when we sought to have some occupational health support. Despite ‘It’ being there if we needed it the difficulties were I didn’t know what ‘It’ was and it was down to me to instigate the fact I needed support. I struggle with this concept as I didn’t know I needed it. I do disagree with the point that our role was no different to that of a patrol officer. We didn’t get any respite. Our role was death day in day out and cases can go on for years. The patrol officer whilst attending a traumatic incident does need looking after and support but I am talking here of cumulative fatigue and multi trauma exposure – that was the difference. There was no support and by the time I needed it (and others too) it was too late as the damage had been done.
I have tried to paint a picture of how I see it below.
This period is when you are first exposed to trauma / death and your resilience is maybe ‘normal’. You have never seen a traumatic incident before and you find it upsetting. It could be the first time you see a dead body or had to deal with a family who has lost somebody. You become upset and relate to it as a human being. You are fresh and your body has not been exposed to any trauma. There may be a dip in resilience as you wonder if you can cope with it and you feel sad about it.
You find methods to cope with traumatic events / coping mechanisms. You start to box things off and put things to the back of your mind. You are making subconscious decisions of whether you can or cannot do this type of work – whether it is for you or not. Some people may feel pressure to do the job as what are the alternatives – leave etc so find a way to cope. You see peers who have dealt with it for years so know it’s possible. You start to put this shell on you to protect yourself and become some what immune to the trauma by blocking it.
You are experienced in the role your shell is hardened now it is second nature to deal with these incidents, you are hard pushed to be phased by a traumatic scene or event (well consciously at the time). Somebody has to do it and if you don’t who else will. You protect others.
You are really fatigued at this point and you have dealt with multi traumas. You waiver from time to time, you question yourself as to whether you can continue doing the work. You have become so good at boxing things off and not letting trauma in that other things in your life have also been boxed off and not dealt with due to your shell that you have developed. You do not get sad about these instances. You become numb to it. You are stressed and anxious – the dripping tap is still dripping and your bucket is overflowing with years of trauma not processed. You are no longer fresh but really fatigued.
Your shell has cracked and your body takes over and mechanisms kick in to self preserve itself. You become ill and you have to go through a major process of getting better and processing all the things that were on the exterior of your shell that have now seeped through to the human being you are that is more often than not not capable of dealing with multi trauma time after time.
Having had time to reflect I was sliding down the slope of E but didn’t hit the bottom as I was caught before hitting rock bottom, sadly others I know have hit the bottom and the results are not good.
For anybody reading this and responsible for staff in this sort of environment then you need to be trying to identify where they are in phases B – E and giving them help and assistance. Can I say if I had had intervention in these stages I would not have ended up at point E? I doubt it as the quantity of trauma emergency personnel are exposed to with dwindling resources means it is inevitable unless you are allowed time out. I am not certain there are any practitioners in mental health and well being that are able to provide a service to cope with such trauma exposure.
There maybe people that cope with these instances fine and can cope. We are all different – we all have differing levels of resistance but rest assured we all have our limits and for ourselves to recognise them is hard so we need proper strategies in place to deal with them by OHU and supervisors.
Having spent 12 months away from this environment I can say it is not until you come away from it you truly know how impactive it is dealing with what you are dealing with. I still deal with these instances in my current role as a consultant however I am not as close and they are not as frequent so its manageable. Its the constant exposure to trauma first hand where people need to be careful.
It is far from normal to see these events and we need to support those doing it. Normality is returning somewhat in my life.
Maybe I should have cried instead of laughing.