April 4, 2008

CUPD Helps Staff Combat Emergency Induced Stress

Print More

Crime victims are not the only ones who suffer enduring effects of emergency situations. Law enforcement officers suffer the highest suicide rate compared to that of other professions, second only to dentists, according to Linda Starr, manager of the Employee Assistance Program.
In fact, according to Joe Schwartz, a public information officer from the Cornell Press Relations office, crime victims and law enforcement officers alike struggle against the emotional stress created by emergencies. To help staff cope, the CUPD provided an eight-hour seminar to ensure that their staff “[is] aware of the triggers and effects of stress, and that they are provided with tools for coping with such stress in an effective manner,” Schwartz stated in an e-mail.
Kathy Zoner, deputy chief of CUPD, explained that a key problem facing law enforcement officers is the fact that they are constantly bouncing back and forth between extremely low and extremely high levels of stress. Low levels of stress, according to Zoner, are often non-motivational, whereas high levels of stress may be very draining. Since the stress level is so volatile, officers often do not have enough of the motivational stress that “drives [them] to do well at [their] jobs,” Zoner said. The lack of balance is “difficult to manage over a long period of time.”[img_assist|nid=29491|title=On full alert|desc=A police car is parked outside of CUPD headquarters at Barton Hall. The CUPD has implemented a program to help workers cope with the emotional stress created by emergencies.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
High levels of stress manifest themselves in the officers just as they do for most people. There are “lots of increases in the autonomic nervous system,” according to Zoner, resulting in “increased breathing, increased heart rate, sweating, as well as increased irritability, and lack of focus.”
However, Zoner notes that “Every individual is affected differently. If [an officer] is not managing personal stress, it can very negatively affect the people we serve, as well as fellow officers.”
Starr helped to create the agenda for the seminar and did a significant part of the presenting. To cope with stress, Starr said that she emphasized the U.S. Air Force model, “Lesson Plan,” which involves making sure that people have leisure activities, a regular exercise schedule, adequate sleep (a particularly difficult requirement for someone adhering to a shift schedule) and activities that are spiritual in nature, such as volunteering.
Starr also discussed “survival stress,” which can occur when officers are involved in life threatening situations. Survival stress is similar to the stress of a near car accident, according to Starr, when the victim feels effects such as an accelerated heartbeat, a rush of adrenaline and tunnel vision.
To practice dealing with such high-level stress, Starr discussed the importance of practicing combat, or tactical breathing during active shooter training, a training that simulates dangerous real-life situations. Tactical breathing involves breathing slowly and deeply.
In these situations, officers suffer a long exposure to the symptoms of stress, and the tactical breathing may “help increase people’s odds in making quick decisions in life-threatening situations,” she explained.
The law enforcement officers were not the only ones who participated in the seminar; it included all members of the CUPD staff, including first responders, administrators and secretaries.
“The entire staff is affected,” Zoner said, and they are “affected in different ways.”
For example, a first responder faces the immediate stress of the emergency situation, whereas other members of the staff may be responsible for supervising officers and helping them recover afterward, Zoner explained. Secretaries, on the other hand, review paperwork that may contain upsetting facts. Dispatchers are forced into a position where they may have to send an officer out to work in a dangerous situation, but the dispatcher is “stuck in a little room where [he or she] cannot help,” Zoner said.
Furthermore, the impact of various stressors is “very individualistic,” Zoner noted. “Some people can handle a mass casualty incident with seemingly little effect. For others, even a minor injury can be very upsetting.”
“Different situations [involve] different levels of stress,” she added, so part of the challenge is a “matter of being aware of everyone around you.”
Starr explained, “One of the other purposes of this [seminar] was not only how [the staff] takes care of themselves, in terms of daily stressors and highly stressful situations, but also how to take care of each other.”
Sgt. Philip Mospan felt that the seminar was helpful. It was a chance for the CUPD to “come together as a group and share our experiences,” he said.
The group “talked about previous incidents on campus that brought stress on the scene and at the department,” he said, and they learned about the support systems available to the CUPD on campus.
“[We] go a long way in supporting each other in our job,” Zoner said.
The stress-management education “helps all of us take better care of ourselves, and our community reaps the benefit of that,” Zoner said.