Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Decade in Crisis Response

This week, many in the blogosphere are writing about their "top 10" or "bottom 10" for the past year or decade, or about their hopes for the coming year in their particular area of expertise.  I thought long and hard about writing about my hopes for the coming year in crisis response, but my honest hope is that very few people will need crisis response in 2010.  That may be unrealistic, but if we're talking about New Year's Wishes, then that's mine.  Besides, I am a Monday Morning Quarterback, which means I specialize in looking back.  So here is my review of the last decade's major crises (as designated by my executive Quarterback fiat) and how they were handled:

  • Y2K.  Remember that?  Remember how civilization as we know it was going to come to a grinding halt at the stroke of midnight 10 years ago?  This was the crisis that wasn't.  Quarterback Points go to the people who realized there was a problem and set about trying to solve it.  Quarterback Demerits for the complete failure of anyone in government to share any kind of unified message about what to expect, or even to figure out how big the problem really was.  The result was people with stockpiled food and weapons and nothing to do with them.  Never a good thing.
  • 9-11.  This was undoubtedly a defining moment for our country and perhaps for the world.  It also was a defining moment in crisis response to see what the early trauma intervention community could do on a truly huge scale.  Quarterback Points to ICISF and the many CISM Teams around the country that went to Ground Zero for months after the event.  Points also to the various agencies that recognized the need of their people for immediate and longterm mental health support.  We also have points for the surrounding communtiy in New York that took responsibility for nourishing the first responders' bodies and spirits.  Finally, points for our country and the world for recognizing the need to support each other in addition to getting angry.  In a million small ways, for a few weeks we all remembered what it meant to be human.  We were all in this together.  Quarterback Demerits to the quick transformation from a balance between the emotional reaction and the tactical response to an entirely action-oriented focus where grief and trauma had no place to breathe.  Big demerits also to the brass at the New York City Fire Department who had long resisted implementing CISM in their organization and had no effective way of supporting their people, and to EAPs and corporations who violated basic rules of CISM like "don't mix the people who were there with the people who weren't" and then threw up their hands and said that CISM doesn't work.
  • Hurricane Katrina.  Much has been and will be written on the governmental response, or lack thereof, to Katrina.  While I certainly have opinions on whether things were handled decently, I'm only looking at the emotional and mental health repercussions.  Therefore Quarterback Points to Jesse Jackson and other leaders, particularly in the African American community, who recognized quickly that dispersing the residents of New Orleans throughout the country was a bad idea.  People needed to stay together and as close to home as possible.  I didn't get that at the time, but I see it now.  Quarterback Demerits to everyone who opened their mouth without sufficient information during and immediately after the storm, or who put a rosy face on things to save their own rear ends.  It is one thing to not have your needs met.  It's another to have someone say on national TV that they are helping you when they aren't.  From "Heck of a job, Brownie," to press conferences claiming there were no people stranded at the convention center, what was said publicly was a kick in the teeth for the people of New Orleans.
  • H1N1.  If you read this blog with any frequency, you know I've had a lot to say on this topic. This story isn't really over yet, but that's never stopped me before.  Quarterback Points to the CDC and local health departments for coordinating their fall prevention and education efforts so much better than they did in the spring.  Quarterback Demerits also to the CDC and local health departments for completely failing to coordinate in the spring, causing the message to be garbled, confusing, and scary.  Demerits also go out to Joe Biden for his absurd comments about flying on airplanes, and to every person who had the unmitigated gall to try to use this disease as an argument regarding immigration policy.  Finally, the whopper of all demerits to the U.S. media, who simply could not report facts without hype and are still having trouble doing so, and who can't seem to find context for statistics to save their lives.
Finally, a personal note.  I've been writing this blog for just about 7 months now.  It is not in any danger of overloading the servers at Blogger with its many daily hits, but there are a hardcore few of you who read it regularly, and many more who drop by on occasion.  Quarterback Points to you for supporting this effort, and for recognizing that approaching the fear, sadness and anxiety that our world can provoke with a trained eye is worth striving for, for all of our sakes.  Here's to a crisis-free 2010.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Execution of Akmal Shaikh Hits a Little Too Close to Home

Akmal Shaikh, a British citizen, was executed in China today.  This might not ordinarily interest people, certainly not outside of China and the United Kingdom, were it not for two factors: the crime of which he was convicted and the state of his health.  Akmal Shaikh was sentenced for bringing 4 kilograms of heroin into the country.  He was also, by all accounts, mentally ill.

No one would dispute that bringing that much heroin into the country is a very big deal.  He clearly should not have done that, and if he had done it in the United States and found legally sane, he would have spent a very, very long time in jail.  Drug smuggling is not, in our country, a capital crime.  In Great Britain, there is no death penalty at all.  China, on the other hand, leads the world in executions.

Shaikh reportedly suffered from bipolar disorder.  Those of us who know and love people with bipolar disorder know that it can be incapacitating if it's not properly managed.  For whatever reason, Shaikh's wasn't.  He had delusions of grandeur that caused him to record a song about rabbits believing it would usher in world peace.  The emails he sent about his trial are rambling.  He came into posession of the heroin from drug smugglers who found him on the streets of Poland.  There is a serious question to be asked about whether he understood the difference between right and wrong when he smuggled the drugs, and even if he knew they were in his luggage.  It seems relatively clear that he did not understand the nature of the proceedings against him.

Under ordinary circumstances, we are not used to contemplating our own personal risk of being executed.  Most of us cannot, for example, imagine committing premeditated murder.  Yes, there are people out there who do it, but most of us don't.  To keep ourselves from lethal injection, all we need to do is not kill anybody.  We can handle that.

This case, however, is not ordinary circumstances.  To avoid being executed in this case, we have to avoid smuggling drugs.  That doesn't seem so hard.  But we also have to avoid suffering from a mental illness that causes us to lose touch with reality.  A lot of people probably feel like that shouldn't be too difficult either.  If you yourself or someone close to you suffers from depression, bipolar disorder, or any number of other psychiatric problems, however, it's not too much of a stretch to imagine that this really could happen to anyone. 

I'm not too comfortable using the statement "it could happen to anyone" associated with the concept of execution.  Maybe you aren't, either.  That's why we don't execute people in these situations in this country.  That's why the United Kingdom doesn't have the death penalty at all.  It's just a little too close to home.

Monday, December 28, 2009

The Heroism Instinct at Work on Flight 253

The passenger accounts of what happened when a man tried to set off an explosive on Northwest flight 253 last week are quite consistent.  When the fire started, people started running up the aisle and across the plane to get away from the flames.  Jasper Schuringa, a 32 year-old from Amsterdam who was seated behind and across the plane from the fire, jumped across the plane and over several people to tackle the perpetrator, get the melting syringe he was holding away from him, and subdue him. 

Schuringa is being hailed as a hero, and he certainly is one.  Unlike some heroes in other situations, Schuringa is not using the usual "anyone would have done what I did" line, however.  At the risk of taking the wind out of his sails, I'm going to say it for him, at least to a small extent.

Most of us are familiar with what is called the "fight or flight" response.  This refers to the physical and psychological reaction to perceived danger that comes from a very old, primitive place in our minds.  Like animals stalked by a predator, our bodies and minds prepare to either fight back or run away.  To be complete, we really should refer to the "fight, flight or freeze" response, because we also have an instinct to stand very still -- like the proverbial deer in the headlights -- as a way of self-preservation.

When the fire started, the people closest to it reacted instantly with the "flight" part of the response.  They were in immediate danger from the fire itself.  Their instinct, which if you think about it is a pretty good one, was to get away from the flames, and they did.  So why did Schuringa act differently?

When Schuringa saw the fire, the immediate danger he perceived was not the flames.  Remember, he was across the plane and was not about to be burned.  From his perspective, the immediate danger was the plane going down.  His instinct, because there is no running away from a crashing plane, was the "fight" part of the response.  The same urge towards self preservation that made others run away made him jump on the bad guy.

Now, you could argue that there were others at similar distances from the fire who didn't do what Schuringa did, and of course that's true.  Some of those people were experiencing the "freeze" response.  Others were not physically capable of doing what he did.  Still others did not perceive the threat to the plane but instead were concerned, as those close to it were, with the fire, and were assessing whether they needed to run.  I seriously doubt that anyone was thinking, "Someone should stop that guy, but not me."

I do not mean to take anything away from Schuringa.  We should all be grateful for his quick actions.  All I'm suggesting is that what he did was just as instinctual for him as running away was for others.  He can feel proud of what he did.  No one else, however, should feel ashamed that they didn't.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Reacting and Overreacting to the Detroit Plane Incident

In the wake of Friday's apparent attempted terrorist attack on Northwest Flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit, the government has done a lot of things.  Today, the President ordered a review of airline security.  International travelers are reportedly being subjected to additional screenings.  Passengers have to remain seated, at least on some flights, for the last hour before landing, without accessing their carry-on bags and without any personal items on their laps.  Airlines are now prohibited from announcing anything about the flight path, the plane's location, or landmarks they are passing.  Lines are long at airports, and everyone is being told to expect delays.

We've been down this road before, and what will come next is a discussion of whether this is a measured reaction or an overreaction.  It might be useful if we had a common understanding of what constitutes an acceptable reaction and what represents an unacceptable overreaction.  I'd like to propose a set of definitions that is based, generally, on the boundaries of "normal" stress reactions.  An acceptable reaction, then, is one that we would say is typical or normal following a trauma, given all the factors and the amount of time that has passed.  An overreaction is one that, if we saw it in an individual following a critical incident, would make us think the person is probably a candidate for further care.

For individuals, following a trauma, it is very natural to feel defensive and protective.  Something awful has happened, and our understanding of how the world works has been thrown into question.  Things we thought were safe are now suspect, and danger is everywhere.  In the few days or weeks following an incident, it would be well within the range of typical responses for someone to not want to be exposed to things that remind them of what happened.  The particular location feels unsafe, as do other things directly connected such as a car if the incident was a car accident, or a knife if there was one involved. 

Over time, this avoidance shifts from being an absolute rule to a preference, to something that is in the back of the person's mind but not getting in the way of functioning.  Where this process ends will depend on how well the person is recovering and also on the facts of the situation.  If doing something differently or avoiding a certain place or thing was actually a mistake in the first place, then that lesson has been learned.  Someone who refuses to drive without their seatbelt on after a horrific accident isn't failing to recover, they're updating their knowledge.

Some of the new restrictions and rules for airline security seem to fall into the category of what people do immediately following an incident.  Having people remain seated for the last hour with nothing on their laps is a restriction that is specific to the attempted attack that happened on Friday.  There is nothing magical about these rules that will prevent a zillion other things that someone might plan to do on a plane -- they will only stop someone who is mixing explosives in the lavatory or under a blanket at their seat, and only in the last minutes of a flight. 

So are they an overreaction? If we look at the range of normal reactions after a trauma, I'd say no.  The government, in the immediate wake of this attack, is trying to avoid, and to help us avoid, the elements of the incident that are most directly related.  These restrictions are the moral equivalent of avoiding the intersection where your car accident took place.

But could these restrictions become an overreaction?  Absolutely.  If, as the next few weeks unfold, we gain no new information that indicates there is a particular risk to having people access their luggage an hour before landing (as opposed to any other time), or to letting people curl up under a blanket during approach, then these restrictions move from being an understandable avoidance to a pathological one.  Unless we have some reason to believe that failing to do these things on flight 253 was inherently risky, not just for that one time, then we're not returning to reason in a healthy way.

Which brings us around to the President's order to review airline security.  While the fact that CNN sent this out as a "Breaking News Story" was a little over the top, it is a very important component of this process.  There needs to be an operational review to figure out whether the procedures that are in place were followed and what other procedures may or may not be necessary.  It is this review that should inform the airline security restrictions moving forward, not the knee-jerk response of the day after.  Hopefully, there are at least a few people at the Department of Homeland Security who are enough removed from the panic to make sure that happens.

Frequent Quarterbacker Colleen sends the following article from Homeland Security Watch: "Do I Have the Right to Refuse This Search" It is written by a law enforcement officer and discusses the difference between current TSA procedures and effective criminal detection work. It is well worth your time.
Friday, December 25, 2009

Should We Panic About Northwest Flight 253?

The reports are still sketchy, and the details keep changing, but as of this moment it appears that a Nigerian national on board Northwest Airlines flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit either set off or tried to set off a small explosive or incendiary device shortly before the plane landed around noon today.  He claims to have been acting on instructions from Al-Qaeda, and the White House has labeled this an attempted terrorist attack.  Reports differ on whether he actually got the thing lighted, but everyone seems to agree that two or three fellow passengers noticed what he was doing and one of them jumped on him.

At moments like this, we are conditioned to panic.  The idea that we should be extremely worried whenever a terrorist plot is uncovered, especially if it becomes operational in any way, has been pushed upon us from any number of sources over the last 8 years.  We are earnestly asked to be aware of our surroundings and report anything suspicious, and told that we may be facing additional security measures.  We are told that the terror alert level is going up, or not (as in today's incident).  Be afraid, be very afraid.

There are any number of things wrong with this picture.  Let's begin with the terror alert level.  What exactly changes when we go, say, from yellow to orange, or from orange to red?  What are we supposed to do differently?  What purpose is served by telling us that it is staying steady, or going up?  Is the fact that it's not going up supposed to mean that nothing has changed?  How does that jibe with the fact that we are told that security may be tightened at the airport? 

Add to this the fact that at least several news outlets reported that the terror alert level was being raised to orange, despite the fact that it has been at orange for airline travel for quite some time.  I wonder if I'm missing something here -- some nuance about the terror alert level that makes this actually a change.  But even if I am, that only reinforces the notion that the use of this scale is not helpful, at least as it's happening now.

More broadly, however, this incident begs the question:  Why, exactly, are we supposed to be afraid?  There are people out there, most relevantly to this event people associated with Al-Qaeda, who want to hurt Americans.  They are inclined to use air travel to do so.  This isn't news.  The only thing that changed today was that we may have actually seen someone try (or have caught someone who is completely unrelated to Al-Qaeda, but is trying to boost his own importance).

The ways we prevent terrorist attacks are multi-layered.  In this instance, the suspect was, by some reports, on the government No Fly list but was allowed to board a plane to the US anyway -- layer #1 failed.  He then managed to get something that burns or explodes and something to light it with onto a plane -- layer #2 failed.  He then tried to detonate it and both caused himself serious burns without seriously injuring anyone else and was immediately detected and subdued by his fellow passengers -- layer #3 succeeded.  What we learned today is that even if the bad guys manage to get on a plane with something they shouldn't have, we are capable of stopping them before they cause a real problem.  We don't need to be told to pay attention to our surroundings -- this incident proves that we already are.

You'll excuse me if I don't join in the panic today.  It seems to me that the new information we have from flight 253 tells us we're safer than we might have thought.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Update on the Post Office Standoff: What is the Definition of Terrorism?

The standoff at the post office in Wytheville, Virginia ended peacefully late last night.  The gunman was taken into custody, and the three hostages (not five, as had been reported) were released.  The gunman was arraigned today and is now awaiting a psychiatric evaluation.  Former hostages and law enforcement authorities report that the man was upset at the government because his son had died in Afghanistan, his truck was being repossessed, and he thought the government was taxing citizens too highly and was taking away the right to bear arms.

There are two ways you can look at this situation.  You could say that a mentally imbalanced, disabled man who has suffered some tremendous loss acted out in a crazy way.  That's probably the way most people are inclined to see it. Alternately, you could say that an anti-government extremist commited an act of terrorism.  That's an entirely different ballgame.

Does how we frame this incident matter?  I think it does.  How we choose to tell the story of incidents such as this affects how we see ourselves in relationship to them.  If this is a crazy man acting in a crazy way, then it is random.  We know that crazy people are out there, and when we allow ourselves to think about that it makes us pretty uneasy.  But we also know that they are few and far between, and are not particularly looking for "us" when they act out.   If we frame this as an act of terrorism, on the other hand, we -- all of us -- instantly become targets.  Now, there are people out there who hate our government and want to harm our citizens.  As citizens, we ourselves are on their list.  While they may not be coming after us by name, they are coming after us. 

You can see how the terrorism framework instantly transforms this from an issue of random danger to one of "us vs. them."  But the gunman in this incident is an American.  He may be a veteran, and he almost certainly is the father of a serviceman killed in action.  That makes it very hard to frame this as us vs. them, because "they" are actually "us."  This explains why people recoil at descriptions of "far right violent extremists."  It's not only a political issue, it is one of self-preservation.  If the "other side" is right here, then anyone around us could be a member, and any one of us could be in danger.

At the same time, however, we aren't being very consistent.  An American Citizen, connected with the military, walks into a public place, motivated by anger at the United States, and starts shooting.  Is he a terrorist or a crazy person?  In the story we tell ourselves in this country, the thing that makes the difference isn't motive, it's identity.  If the gunman is Muslim, as at Fort Hood, it's a terrorist attack.  If the gunman is Christian, as he was yesterday, he's crazy.  That distinction may be real in many of our minds, but if you take a step back, it's hard to say whether there really is any difference.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Reality Check: Hostages Taken at Virginia Post Office

A man in a wheelchair is, as I write this, holding at least 5 people hostage in the Wytheville, Virginia Post Office.  We know he has a gun, and he has what he claims is 5 pounds of C-4 explosive strapped to his chest.  The only demand he has made thus far, at least as far as police have reported, is for pizza.

This story especially caught my eye because I have been joking around all afternoon, giving people my latest "hot tip" -- on December 23, do not attempt to mail a package at the Inman Square Post Office in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  As you might guess, I myself attempted this feat this morning.  The post office in question is very small, and it was very busy this morning, as were, probably, most post offices in the United States, including the one in Wytheville.

Wytheville has a population of just 8,500 people.  This is not a bustling metropolis, nor is it a place anyone would pick as a high profile terrorist target.  I bring this up, because most of us, rightly or wrongly, have an idea in the back of our minds that, because terrorists with major government agendas tend to pick very public, large places to attack, that no one ever attacks small towns. 

This is, if you think about it, obviously false.  While it may be true that people with grandiose agendas pick places like the World Trade Center, the Oklahoma City Federal Building, Fort Hood, or even the Holocaust Museum, there are numerous examples of people with smaller agendas, or just pure mental illness and no agenda at all, who strike in much more random places.  Those places are often small.

I often write about how trauma affects us, even from a distance, because we can make a personal connection to something about the event.  Certain types of incidents, locations, motives, or any number of factors that can make us identify just that little bit more it takes to go from thinking an event is horrible to really taking it personally.  For me, today, it is knowing that I mailed a package in a crowded post office today, and knowing that it is just random chance that there wasn't a gunman in a wheelchair with explosives coming after me.
Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Washington Deputies Critically Wounded in Shootout, and it's Deja Vu All Over Again

Last night, two Sheriff's Deputies in Pierce County, Washington responded to a call about a drunken man who was refusing to leave his brother's house, where his daughter was staying.  The man cooperated with the deputies and was apparently getting ready to go with them when he began firing a gun he was concealing under some clothes he was holding.  In the ensuing shootout, both deputies were wounded and the suspect was killed.  The brother and daughter pulled at least one of the deputies to safety and began first aid, and the daughter ran to the neighbors to call 911.  Sgt. Nick Hauser is in serious condition.  Deputy Kent Mundell is in critical condition with what are described as "life threatening injuries."

If you're not from the area, you may not know where Pierce County is, so I'll help you out.  It's south of Seattle, and includes the town of Parkland.  Parkland is the next town over from Lakewood, Washington, whose police department lost four officers in an ambush at a Parkland coffee shop late last month.  The first responders to those shootings were deputies from the Pierce County Sherriff's Department.

Not surprisingly, the call last night for two deputies down seemed a little surreal to a lot of the deputies in Pierce County.  Police personnel being shot, particularly being ambushed, is just not that common.  To have it happen twice in a month is unheard of.  The AP quotes the Sheriff's Department spokesperson as saying,
I think some people, when the call went out, didn't believe it was real.
In the light of day, this morning, the same spokesperson told the Seattle Times,
It's pretty sad how well and good we are about this, with the cooperation between agencies and taking care of families.
I think we can all understand that this is not the sort of thing you want to be skilled at, because it is not the sort of thing you want to need to be skilled at.

If you work in Pierce County law enforcement, or even in the Seattle area (since a Seattle officer was ambushed on Halloween as well), you have to feel a little like you're walking around with a great big target on your head.  One officer commented that they are trained to keep themselves safe during raids on drug houses and things like that.  They aren't used to people shooting at them out of nowhere.  But now, that's exactly what's happened, three times in a row.

The shooting of a police officer, particularly if he or she dies, is the worst call any officer can go out on.  It's hard to be professional when your buddy has been killed.  It's nearly impossible when you realize how easily it could have been you, or could be you in the future.  These deputies didn't do anything wrong.  They didn't make any rookie mistakes.  They just had the bad luck to be where some crazy guy wanted to shoot cops.  That could have been anyone in the department.  Each and every deputy is going to have to make his or her peace with that.

There are still several deputies who are out on leave following the Lakewood shootings last month.  That wasn't even their own department, and those deputies are too traumatized to work.  Now it's happened again, and it is their department.  How do they process this and tell themselves this is still really unusual?  Or do they have to readjust to the new normal, one where folks in Pierce County have gotten the idea to shoot at police if they can?  Either way, you have to imagine it's going to be a long way back.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Hardest Thing About Brittany Murphy's Death

Actress Brittany Murphy, whom you may have seen in "8 Mile" or "Clueless" or heard as the voice of Gloria in "Happy Feet," died today at the age of 32.  She went into cardiac arrest at her home and was pronounced dead at the hospital.  The Los Angeles County Coroner's Office has said that foul play is not suspected, her death appears to be natural, and they are looking into her medical history and "some other issues."  The blogosphere and the entertainment media are buzzing with speculation, ranging from complications from diabetes, to anorexia, to drug use.  Various references to Murphy have been in the top 10 trending topics on Twitter all day.

What makes us so fascinated with the lives and deaths of celebrities? Certainly we can all agree that healthy 32 year olds don't often drop dead of cardiac arrest, but why are we more interested in Brittany Murphy than we would be in the death of some random resident of Los Angeles whom we've never heard of?

Part of the issue is that we are, in some sense, told by the media that we're supposed to care.  If you are a media outlet that covers celebrities, you're obviously going to cover this in a big way.  You're going to talk about Brittany Murphy as though you know everything there is to know, or at least are talking to people who do, and as though nothing is more important than finding out what happened to her.  We, the viewers and readers of this, think, "This must be important because they are covering it so much."

There is more to it, however.  If you go purely by name recognition, most celebrities have more people who "know of them" than the average citizen.  When someone whose name you know dies, it piques your interest, and so we pay attention to the death of celebrities.  When someone we think of as someone we "know" dies, we want to know what happened both because we are upset and also because we want to make sure it isn't something that might happen to us.  Celebrities offer us the opportunity to explore traumatic death with a minimum of grief, from a safe distance.

The danger, however, is that there is a fine line between taking interest in the circumstances of someone's death and feeling entitled to know everything about those circumstances.  Brittany Murphy may have died of anorexia, or drug use or diabetes, or she may have had a heart defect, or something else we don't even know about. The thing that is difficult for fans and celebrity reporters and bloggers to reckon with is, the answer is actually none of our business. 

The family and the coroner's office would be well within their rights not to release the information publicly.  Brittany Murphy may have made the choice to make her life public, but her family absolutely does not have to make her death public.  Lots of people probably don't want to hear that. Murphy was somebody's wife, somebody's daughter, and somebody's friend.  They have the right to deal with this horrible situation as they need to.  Taking care of us is really not their concern, and if that leaves us with unanswered questions, we're just going to have to live with that.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

2,000 People Trapped in the Chunnel: How Not to Handle a Crisis

Five trains between France and England broke down under the English Channel on Saturday, trapping about 2,000 passengers for up to 16 hours.  Whether this sounds like a particularly bad situation or just a travel mishap to you probably depends on your familiarity with the "Chunnel" trains and/or whether you are at all claustrophobic.  I myself try very hard not to think about it when I'm taking a tunnel under a large body of water, because I know that if I do I will freak out.  I think 16 hours would give me a little bit too much time to think about the water above me.

The trip from Paris to London (or vice versa) usually takes about 2 hours and 15 minutes.  No one gets on one of those trains with the idea that they will need food, water, pillows, blankets or significant amounts of medicine.  No one plans to spend the night.  Making matters worse, the trains apparently were carrying large numbers of children coming back from Disneyland Paris.  There was no power on the trains and hence no temperature controls -- some stories report temperatures of 104 degrees Farhenheit while others report that passengers were very cold.  The toilet facilities on the trains are not designed to accomodate this many people for this long, and they started to overflow.  It was dark, there was no water, and people started to get sick.

If you read the accounts of this event given by passengers when they finally got off the train, there is one theme that runs through all of them.  The lack of communication from Eurostar, the company that operates the train, and from train and rescue staff, left a lot of people very upset:
There was no communication at all.
They kept changing their story, so we didn't know what to believe.
We’d been sat trapped in a train for four hours and no one told us what was going on.
The driver locked himself in the ­engine room and we were knocking on the door asking what was going on – you could just hear him inside, crying. Passengers were getting very angry.
All we were told on the intercom was to ‘inhale less and keep seated’.
Someone came round and told us to stop breathing heavily because there wasn’t enough oxygen for everyone.
Staff just didn't seem to be telling people what was happening.
Staff are pleasant but have no idea.
It was an utterly disgraceful service and the lack of communication was unforgiveable.
It beggars belief in terms of the lack of organisation, incompetence and lack of information on the part of Eurostar.
The lack of communication caused people to become a lot more distressed than necessary,
We weren't ever told a huge amount of what was going on, the information was so vague.
Throughout this entire ordeal there was almost no information, no customer care and no help or advice.
Communication was the main problem, there were lots of confusing messages.
There was very, very poor communication from the staff.

During a major crisis, it's not unusual for a company or organization to "circle the wagons."  They don't want the wrong information to get out, and they want to limit the damage caused by the incident.  The result is that they don't say anything to anyone until they are very sure of what they are saying.  We experience this in big and small ways every day -- an airline doesn't tell you your plane will be late even though you can tell the plane you're leaving on hasn't arrived; the police have "no comment" when it is completely obvious they are focusing in on a single suspect; the cable company tells you your call is important to them, but not how long you'll have to stay on the line.

There are certainly times when this lack of information may be necessary, as in the police investigation above.  However, it is not necessary nearly as often as it is used.  Organizations can afford to share a lot more information than they are naturally inclined to, but it takes some skill.  A good example of what not to do is in the employees who were suggesting that people not breathe so much on the trains.  There is honesty, and then there is tactlessness.

Imagine, though, if the train staff had said,
We know this is very upsetting.  We are doing everything we can to get you out of here.  Right now, however, we do not know how long that is going to take.  We apologize, and we will let you know when we have more information.
Would that have made everyone calm and happy?  Probably not.  But it would have given people one less thing to be angry and stressed about.  It would have eliminated the perception that information was out there and wasn't being shared, and the fear that things were much worse than Eurostar was letting on.  This experience would still have been truly awful, but perhaps it wouldn't have been so traumatic.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Shedding Some Light on @Military_Mom's Tragic Tweets

Bryson Ross, a 2 year-old Florida boy, drowned in his family's swimming pool on Monday.  His mother, Shellie Ross, is better known in the blogosphere as @Military_Mom, a mommy blogger with more than 5,400 Twitter followers who writes about her experiences parenting four children and being married to a military husband.  Ross was tweeting just 1 minute before her 11 year-old called 911, and Ross performed CPR on Bryson.  Thirty-four minutes after Bryson was taken to the hospital, she tweeted asking for prayers for him.  Five hours later she announced his death on Twitter. 

There has been a firestorm of controversy surrounding these tweets.  Some are saying that Ross was too busy tweeting to watch her child, and was callous to tweet about the accident.  Some are dismayed to have messages such as these delivered to their timeline when they are used to having much lighter-hearted fair from Ross.  Many are asking the question, "What kind of mother tweets when her child is dying?"

I don't know Shellie Ross.  I'm not a follower of hers on Twitter and I had not heard of her before this happened.  But I do have an answer to that question.  What kind of mother tweets when her child is dying?  A blogging mother.  More precisely, a blogging mother going through every parent's worst nightmare.

When trauma strikes, it is literally too big for our brains to process.  We cannot assimilate the situation fully into the normal structures with which we understand the world.  We have no place for this new information, and it gets stuck.  Because we don't know what to do with what has happened, it is not at all uncommon for people to "revert to type" following a tragedy.  That is, they suddenly and even compulsively do the things that are most comfortable for them.

I have heard stories of military wives who see a chaplain and an officer approaching their door and go take a bath before they let them in to deliver the news that their husband has died in action.  I have seen people go to the kitchen and start cooking.  Children in particular often shock adults by greeting horrible news with something like, "OK, can I go play now?"

When something awful happens, it can seem like the world has come to an end.  Doing what is most familiar to us gives us a sense of normalcy that we desperately need in order to even begin to understand what has happened.  Shellie Ross exhibited two basic, instinctive behaviors -- she did what was familiar and she asked the first people she could think of for help.  Her behavior wasn't abnormal -- the situation was abnormal.  So maybe we could all show a little compassion instead of rushing to judge.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Proper Place for Blame: Operational Review Scheduled for the Lakewood Shootings

Governor Christine Gregoire of Washington is convening a meeting on December 30 of a number of law enforcement agencies, judges, prosecutors, and other relevant groups to examine "lessons learned" in the shootings of four Lakewood police officers last month.  This is what is often referred to as an "Operational Review."  After something significant happens, it always pays to go back and figure out what could have been done differently.  In this case, the focus will be not on the response once the shooting started, but rather the procedures that allowed the shooter to be out on the street in the first place.  Governor Gregoire has asked for recommendations about changes to state laws and the state Constitution to prevent something like this from happening again.

Immediately following a traumatic incident, people often want to have this conversation.  We saw that following the Lakewood shootings when the media pounced on the fact that the shooter had been granted clemency by then Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee.  I had my head handed to me by friends in the Seattle area when I suggested, in this space, that such blame was not productive.  I should have been more specific that I did not believe it was productive at that time.  There is a time and place for an operational review, and December 30, more than a month after the shootings, is certainly reasonable.

If you look at the "popular topics" listing on the sidebar of this blog, you will see that one of the most frequent tags is "blame."  I write about blame more than I write about Critical Incident Stress Management, which is the area of expertise that even allows me to write in the first place.  Blame comes up so frequently in traumatic incidents because it is one of the first responses most of us have when we are exposed to trauma.

Blame is our response for two reasons.  First, from an evolutionary standpoint, if we are a wild animal and we can tell that the actions of another wild animal caused us to get attacked by a tiger, it is a good idea to identify that and either change that other animal's behavior or disassociate ourselves from them.  Second, assigning blame insulates us from perhaps the most traumatic idea at all, which is that trauma can strike at random.  The same evolutionary instinct that tells us to dissociate from the animal who caused the problem tells us that if we can assign blame we can control danger.

The reason that blame immediately following a trauma is not very productive is not that there isn't blame to be assigned, but rather that it interferes with us processing what has happened.  We can spend as much time as we want pointing fingers, but it will not change the outcome at all.  If our energies are devoted to finding fault, they are not devoted to coming to some basic understanding of what happened and how we are going to live with what happened moving forward.  We can vilify Mike Huckabee all we want, but those four officers are still dead, and we need to learn to live with that.

At some distance from the incident itself, we can begin to review what happened with a different eye.  The purpose of an operational review is not to vilify someone, but rather to truly figure out how to do things differently.  There is a big difference between saying, "This is all Mike Huckabee's fault" and saying, "the system, as exemplified by Mike Huckabee, has flaws that allow this to happen.  How can we fix that?"  Only when we take this problem-solving stance can we actually begin to do what we instinctively want to do, which is to prevent as much trauma as possible.

There is always at least one pitfall associated with everything we do after a traumatic incident, however, and I hope that the Governor and the agencies he has asked to participate do not fall into it.  The pitfall is that sometimes, when we review what happened, we realize that we can, indeed, completely eliminate a threat, but that the way to do so is so draconian that it has all kinds of other consequences.  In this case, for example, you could eliminate the threat of any violent criminal ever doing violence again by locking all of them away on their first offense, or even by imposing the death penalty for all violent crimes.  While that would prevent all future offenses, it would also throw away everyone who has ever been violent, even those who are not likely to offend again.  As the Governor convenes this review, let's hope that common sense is used to plug the holes and fix the flaws in the system, but that the proverbial baby is not thrown out with the proverbial bathwater.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Taking it Personally: Guilty Verdict in the Seattle Jewish Federation Shooting

On July 28, 2006, a man took held a teenage girl at gunpoint, forced his way into the Seattle Jewish Federation offices and started shooting.  One woman was killed and five others were injured.  The gunman, who had a history of mental illness, told a dispatcher he was tired of Jews, Israel and American foreign policy, and he was hoping to get on CNN.  Today, a jury rejected his insanity defense and found him guilty at his second trial (the first one ended in a hung jury).

This was not the first shooting at a place associated with Judaism in the United States, and it was not the last.  Over the last 15 years or so, security has been increasing steadily at synagogues, community centers and museums.  Here in Ann Arbor, you have to show picture ID to get into the Jewish Community Center.  Many synagogues have police presence during holiday services.

All of us who frequent Jewish community buildings know why the extra security is there.  At the same time, we don't spend a whole lot of time thinking about it.  We tell ourselves that it's to guard against something that, realistically, isn't going to happen anyway.  We know there are those "out there" who, because of ignorance or illness, think that shooting at Jews is a good thing to do.  We just don't think they are anywhere near us.

I remember distinctly how I felt when I heard about the shooting in Seattle.  My family lived in Seattle for four months about ten years ago, and we've visited several times, so I felt some connection.  More than that, however, I remember imagining very vividly what the scene must have looked like.  I placed the shooting in my mind at building that looked just like the local JCC.  I could very much picture what happened and where it happened, even though I'd never been there and the building in Seattle probably looks nothing like this.

This is what having a personal connection to a traumatic event does to us.  While everyone who heard about this event knew it was terrible, those of us with ties to the Jewish community had much easier access to the details of what made it awful.  Anyone can, if they try, put themselves in a traumatic scene in their mind's eye.  We just got there much more easily.

I was therefore somewhat surprised when I read about the verdict in this case.  I wasn't surprised that the jury found the gunman guilty, although I don't have enough of the details to have an opinion about whether he was legally insane or not.  What surprised me was that, before I read about the verdict, I had totally forgotten about this incident.  Part of what allows me to go to my Temple on a regular basis is the ability to not vividly imagine an actual shooting when I do, and so my mind has given itself permission to file this away until needed.

Nevertheless, when I heard about the verdict, I immediately saw that same scene that I had imagined 3 years ago in my mind.  For me, that is what represents the trauma of this shooting.  Oddly, I have a vivid visual memory of something that I never saw.  In a few days or weeks, the Seattle shooting will be filed away again.  Soon enough, I and many other people, will convince ourselves that we are guarding against something that, realistically, isn't going to happen anyway.  Until the next time.

Note: The picture above is of Pam Waechter, the director of the Seattle Jewish Federation's annual campaign, who was killed in the shooting.  Ms. Waechter was a Jew by choice, having been raised Lutheran.  As Richard Silverstein wrote at the time,

It is terribly ironic that a woman who elects to convert to Judaism in order to share the joy and fate of the Jewish people should pay the ultimate price for that commitment.
May her memory be a blessing.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Mourning a Poster Child: California Teen Dies of Alcohol Poisoning

Aydin Salek of South Pasadena, California, died just after midnight Sunday morning, apparently from an overdose of alcohol.  He was the student representative to the local school board and a leader and writer on his high school newspaper.  He would have turned 18 today.  He had spent the evening at a party advertised on Facebook at the home of a girl whose parents were away.  The party was broken up by Los Angeles County Sherriff's Deputies.

The accidental death of any person is a tragedy.  Parents in particular read stories like this one and worry, for good reason, about their own children.  There are about 50,000 cases of alcohol poisoning in the United States each year.  There are about 50 alcohol poisoning deaths, far fewer than from non-alcohol related car accidents, for example, but this one bothers us.  It sticks with us because it seems like something a parent can prevent.  If only we tell our children enough times, if only we teach them well, they will not make a mistake like this one.

Many parents and teachers around the country will use this story as a springboard to talking to children about alcohol and alcohol poisoning.  It's not uncommon, following a death like this, for the school where the student attended to use the occasion as the backdrop to talk about alcohol use in the community.  Undoubtedly, there are some kids who will be scared enough to listen, and many who won't.

I always worry, though, about the families in these cases.  Their child has just become the poster child for alcohol poisoning.  No matter what they accomplished in life, they will be most remembered for how they died.  People will argue about who's fault it is -- the parents, for giving him too much freedom; the party planners; the friends for not calling 911 fast enough; our culture for promoting alcohol; his for making a bad choice.  Those are public debates, but this is a private loss. 

Aydin Salek was somebody's baby, and the question of how this happened is not an academic one for them.  It is an intensely personal one that they will wrestle with for the rest of their lives.  They may choose to "make something good" of his death by educating others.  We could hardly blame them, though, if they tried to remember him more for how he lived than the senseless way he died.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Reclaiming the Coffee Shop where the Lakewood Shootings Took Place

Forza Coffee in Parkland, Washington reopened yesterday.  At 8:14 AM, they relit their "Open" sign, two weeks to the minute after a gunman shot and killed four police officers from the neighboring Lakewood Police Department inside the coffee shop.  The line was out the door.  They served 1100 cups of coffee.

This reminded me of something in my own life.  Several years ago, when I lived in Pittsburgh, a man drove through the southern suburbs seeking out people of color, immigrants and Jews and shooting at them.  Several people died.  A synagogue was shot at and swastikas drawn on the walls.  That night, I went to that synagogue for services.  I had never been there before, and I haven't been back.  But that night, the place was packed.

When we intentionally visit someplace where a crime has occurred, we are accomplishing several things.  We are making a statement that we will not be intimidated -- this was certainly true in the case of the synagogue.  We are supporting an establishment that has experienced a trauma, just as we might if something terrible happened to a neighbor or friend.  We are offering moral support.

We are also reclaiming the space from the trauma that occurred there.  Very often, people who experience trauma avoid the place where it happened, sometimes for a very long time.  The place brings back vivid and unpleasant memories, so they simply choose not to expose themselves to it.  Going back represents a graduation of sorts.  It means that while we remember what happened there, we are not afraid of the space anymore.  By having something positive occur there, such as an outpouring of customers or worshippers, we are building a new, positive association to go alongside the negative one that will always be there.

That Forza branch will probably do a brisk business for a long time now.  It is a memorial to those who died, a place for the living to remember, and a symbol of the community coming together.  No one's going to want it to go out of business for a long, long time.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Now What? Roommate, 98, Indicted in the Murder of Elizabeth Barrow, 100

Elizabeth Barrow's 98 year-old roommate has been indicted for her murder.  In case you missed it, Elizabeth Barrow is the 100 year-old woman from Massachusetts who died in September at her nursing home in Dartmouth, Massachusetts.  It took a few weeks for the coroner to rule that she had not, in fact, died of natural causes, but rather had been strangled in her bed.  I blogged at the time about the difference between trauma and grief and why cause of death matters to the family.

It turns out that Barrow and her roommate had gotten into an argument about the placement of a table in their room.  The roommate threatened her.  Soon, she was dead.  Now a 98 year-old woman faces the possibility of going on trial for murder.  She is currently being evaluated for competency to stand trial.  She is one of only 3 people that old ever to be charged with homicide in the United States.

Most families of murder victims want to see the perpetrator brought to justice.  While the trial does not bring "closure," in the sense that it is not truly the end of processing the trauma and grief, it reduces the sense that the world is random and the bad guys are everywhere.  It is one less thing to worry about, even though the list of things to worry about is still pretty long.

I wonder, though, about Elizabeth Barrow's family.  Will it bring them any kind of peace to try a 98 year-old woman for murder?  By all accounts, the roommate has a history of dementia.  She may well not have been really aware of the consequences of her actions.  Will the sense of "closure" come from her conviction, or does it come from just knowing what happened and that it can't happen to anyone else?  Or is there something else altogether going on for this family -- a sense of anger that the staff did not prevent this?

For now, Elizabeth Barrow's son has declined to comment, so we may never know.  If there's one thing I've learned over years of crisis intervention, it's that traumatized people, particularly people faced with a kind of incident I've never dealt with before, will have themes to their reaction that I can't possibly predict.  Because the victim in this case had a very short life expectancy to begin with, and perhaps because it is so unusual, I feel a little more comfortable than usual saying that I'm really pretty curious.
Friday, December 11, 2009

Missing Utah Mom: All Women are Equal, But Some are More Equal than Others

Susan Powell, a 28-year-old mom in West Valley City, Utah, didn't turn up for work on Monday, and neither did her husband.  By midday, her sister had called police and they had found that the whole family was gone, but Susan's keys, cell phone and car were still at her home.  Around 5 o'clock, her husband turned up with the kids, ages 2 and 4, and said that he had been camping.  He told police that he had last seen his wife about 12:30 that morning, as she was going to bed.  He had then bundled his kids up in the middle of the night and taken them camping in temperatures below 20 degrees and forgotten that it was Monday, not Sunday.

Susan Powell is still missing, and her disappearance is being classified as "suspicious" by law enforcement.  They aren't naming names, but I don't think you have to have a degree in criminal justice to figure out that her husband is a major suspect.  Either he is very odd and innocent, or he is guilty and a very bad liar.  Time will tell.

This story is all over the news today, four days after Susan Powell went missing.  I do not begrudge her the media attention, and I hope it helps to find her.  But I can't help but contrast this situation to the case of the 11 dead women who were found at a single house in Cleveland, Ohio.  In that instance, some of them were gone for months before anyone reported them missing, and some were never reported at all.  Certainly none of them got the kind of media coverage that Susan Powell is getting.

There are some practical reasons for the difference.  Obviously the media will not cover the disappearance of someone who has not been reported missing.  The victims in the Cleveland case were very disproportionately transient, homeless, or prostitutes -- the people who are poorly connected to the rest of society and, frankly, that society doesn't worry too much about.  That makes reporting of their disappearance less likely.

Let's face it, though.  Part of the reason Susan Powell is getting much more coverage than the Cleveland victims all did combined is that she is a white, middle class, young mother.  She is the stuff crime shows are made of.  The victims in Cleveland are the people who we accept, as a society, will go missing -- African-American women engaged in drugs or prostitution or living on the street.  We don't worry about them when they're there, and we don't worry about them when they disappear.

We like to pretend that every human life is precious to us in this country.  These two cases point out that that really isn't true.  We'll prosecute the killers of anyone, yes.  But there are some women on the fringes of society that we won't work too hard to protect.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Officer-Involved Shooting in Times Square: Merry Christmas!

This morning at about 11:20 AM, a plainclothes New York City police officer recognized a suspect in Times Square.  The man was a scam artist -- he apparently approached people, asked their names, wrote it on a CD and then demanded $10 for the "personalized" CD.  So the officer approached the suspect, who began running away.  The officer chased him. 

So far, this was only a mildly exciting day in New York City.  Mildy exciting, that is, until the suspect started shooting at the police officer.  The officer returned fire, shooting and killing the suspect right in front of the Marriott Marquis hotel.  The gunfire broke a window at the box office for "White Christmas." 

If you've been to Times Square, you can imagine what it looks like this time of year at 11:30 in the morning.  Tourists are looking around.  Businesspeople are heading for an early lunch.  Holiday shoppers are doing their thing.  It's crowded.

None of these people would be the slightest bit phased to see a scene like the one that played out today on Law & Order.  In fact, a number of people apparently asked if it was a TV show or a movie being filmed.  But seeing it live is a little bit different.  The New York Times quoted a tourist from New Orleans who was staying at a nearby hotel as saying,
I’d never heard a gunshot before, but I knew it was a gunshot. Pow-pow-pow-pow — just like that. Then I heard a guy yell. Then sirens. I froze. My hair stood on end.

The fact of the matter is, we like crime stories and cop shows because they tie the horrible into a neat package.  They have a beginning, middle and end.  Everything is over in an hour, and we can experience what we are afraid of while knowing we're safe.  We do not expect, even in Times Square, to see a police officer shoot a suspect right in front of us.  The officer does not expect to be shot at when he rousts a suspect for a relatively minor offense, either.  And as much as this might make for a good story about some people's trip to New York, it probably is going to make a lot of people -- both natives and tourists, just a little more skittish and aware of their surroundings for the next few days.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Seabrook, Texas Shelters In Place

At about 8:45 this morning, a tank at the American Acryl chemical plant in Seabrook, Texas exploded, releasing a massive amount of black smoke and fumes into the air.  The blast shook buildings throughout the town and as far away as Houston, 30 miles away.  The fire was out within about an hour, and the only injuries were two workers who inhaled some fumes.  Local residents and all of the schools in the surrounding area were asked to shelter in place following the explosion.

This raises an interesting question.  Do you know what sheltering in place is?  If you got an order to do it, would you know what to do?  If you're not in emergency management, crisis response or a first responder, you may well not.  And that's a problem because, unfortunately, emergency managers don't always speak plain English when they're giving information.  The clear directive to shelter in place may seem obvious to them, but it isn't necessarily to us.

In case you're still wondering, sheltering in place is a lot like what it sounds like.  It means staying where you are and not going outside.  Depending on the circumstances, it might also mean going to the lowest level of the building or to the highest levels (in the case of chemical agents that are settling down).  It may or may not involve locking and securing doors and windows, depending on whether the hazard is something like a chemical spill or something like a bank robber running through the neighborhood.

Sheltering in place may not seem like a big deal, and it probably isn't if you only have to do it for an hour or two.  In Michigan, we are actually required to practice sheltering in place at least once a year, which basically entails telling everyone to come inside, locking the doors and taking attendance.  We can imagine situations, however, where people have to shelter in place for several days -- for example, if a chemical plant is burning and the fire isn't put out quickly.

Most homes are pretty poorly equipped to shelter in place for any length of time.  Most of us have enough food for several days, but most of us don't have enough water if the water supply is contaminated.  Schools are even worse -- most schools don't have even one day's supply of food and water for all staff and students, let alone facilities for sleeping.  I can imagine nothing much worse, as a Principal, than having to keep students overnight.  In fact, when I teach CISM classes I use such a scenario as a training exercise.  It's that bad.

I'm glad the fire is out in Seabrook and the danger seems to have passed.  I'm glad all those kids got to go home at the regular time and sleep in their own beds, and the residents are going about their daily business.  But I wonder how long it will be before something like this happens and really shuts down a school district or a county.  I know for sure, we're not really ready.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Update: What Do We Tell Our Kids About the Pittsfield Township Shooting Now?

Late on Friday, the shooter in the Pittsfield Township shooting was released.  Police are still investigating the case, but the key issue appears to be whether the shooter acted in self-defense.  What we know is that the dead man had an unregistered gun with him but did not fire it.  The two men were sitting in the shooter's car when the incident happened.  Whatever else police know, they're not telling.

When I wrote about this incident last week, I suggested taking a straightforward approach in talking about this with children:
What you do tell them is that yes, this was scary.  Yes, you understand they are upset.  And then you offer them some perspective.  These two men knew each other.  No one is going around the neighborhood shooting -- this was a problem between those two people and only those two people.  You remind them that the man who did the shooting is in jail until this gets sorted out.  You tell them this is rare -- this has never happened before.
But now we have a problem, which is that the man is not in jail anymore but this still hasn't been sorted out.  Whatever went on in that car seems a little shady, and the adults are worried enough, let alone the kids.

So what do you tell your kids, when they say they're scared because the man isn't in jail anymore?  You tell them that you understand why that would worry them, and you're glad they told you.  Then, you remind them again that whatever happened was between these two men and no one else.  The neighbor is the same person he was before this happened, and there is no reason at all to think that he is a danger to anyone in the neighborhood.

In the end, what we have to hope is that the police investigation will uncover enough information about what happened to put the neighbors' minds at ease, at least a little.  Uncertainty is hard.  Uncertainty when your neighbor has killed someone, it seems obvious, is harder.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Children of Our Bravest: Some Thoughts on Nightclub Fires

A fire broke out at a crowded nightclub in Russia on Friday night, killing 112 people.  Faulty fireworks are being blamed, and a number of people are under arrest.  Most of the dead breathed toxic fumes from the fire.  Reports from those who were inside indicate there was a stampede which wound up blocking everyone's way out.

This may sound familiar to Americans, who remember the fire at the Station Nightclub in West Warwick, Rhode Island in 2003.  In that fire, pyrotechnics ignited foam installed around the stage, causing a fast moving fire.  A stampede ensued, completely blocking the main entrance where most of the patrons headed even though there were four exits.  100 people died.

I had the privilege of taking a class with Dr. Anne Balboni, one of the CISM responders to that awful event.  She described in gruesome detail the piles of bodies that firefighters had to remove, one corpse at a time.  She also described their surprise after removing the bulk of one pile at finding a man who was alive and uninjured on the bottom.  He had rolled on his side as he fell, protecting himself from being crushed, and the bodies above and beside him had protected him from the fire and smoke.

Perhaps the most riveting story, though, came when she talked about working with the children of the firefighters after the Station Nightclub tragedy.  She invited all of them to draw a picture of their firefighter parent in whatever clothes they liked -- dress uniform, gear or whatever.  One child drew a picture of his father and said, "He's in regular clothes.  I'm going to be a firefighter so he doesn't have to anymore."

When something awful happens, we focus on those who died, those who were hurt, those who survived and all of their families.  If we're astute, we remember to focus on the first responders, too.  This story, however, illustrates vividly an important aspect of any event.  Everyone affected brings their stress and associated symptoms home with them.  That in turn impacts their families, leading at best to strain, and at worst to the breakup of families.  I imagine somewhere in Russia there's a small child saying he wants to be a firefighter so his dad doesn't have to.  I hope both of them get some support.

Notes:  The fact that everyone headed for the main entrance at the Station Nightclub is a lesson for all of us.  No matter where you are, always look around and figure out where the nearest exit is.  If we all did that, fewer people would die in incidents such as this.

Also, I'd like to apologize to Anne Balboni if any of the details of this story are incorrect.  The thrust of it is basically right, but I can't say with certainty that the particulars are 100% correct.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Indiana Boy Murdered By His Brother: How Can This Happen?

Conner Conley, an Indiana 10 year-old, was murdered last Saturday night.  He was strangled, apparently by his 17 year-old brother, who later turned himself in.  He compared the feeling of killing Conner to fulfilling a craving for a hamburger.  He said he identified with Dexter Morgan, the serial killer on Showtime's "Dexter."  The brother pled not guilty today, but his parents weren't in court.  They were at the funeral home for the visitation.

Stories like this make us look a little sideways at our own children.  Every one of us believes, when our child joins our family, that he or she is perfect.  We are disabused of that notion in many small ways early on, but the fundamental belief is there.  These are our kids, and they are good.  Conner's brother was a baby once.  His parents saw him the same way.  What went wrong between then and now?  And how sure are we that whatever it is won't happen to our child?

The easiest place to lay blame here is on the television program.  This boy said he watched the program, said he identified with the killer on the program, and killed his own brother.  The show must be to blame.  But it's probably not that simple.  While the show may not have helped anything, no sane, well adjusted, rational person not under the influence of any substances will watch the show and suddenly be beset with the urge to kill their brother.  Even if they were, they wouldn't do it.  This boy says he's fantasized about killing someone since 8th grade, but "Dexter" didn't start airing until he was in 9th.  It is far more likely that he was drawn to the show because he was thinking about murder, rather than the show giving him ideas.

In my experience, it is very rare for something like this to happen completely out of the blue.  Conner's parents left him in his brother's care, so obviously they were not expecting this exact thing to happen.  At the same time, however, it's unlikely that they had no inkling that their older son had some problems.  Investigators describe him as calm and emotionless about the murder.  That means he probably has no or little conscience.  It's hard for someone not to notice that anything is amiss in a kid like that.

So what went wrong?  We may never know.  How sure are we that our own kids won't go wrong?  Not very.  But we can be assured that turning into a teenager who kills his brother does not happen overnight, and that there are chances along the way to stop it from happening, or at least take precautions.  If it's going to happen, there may be signs.  We can't be 100% sure, but then we never are when it comes to our children. 

I can't even bring myself to write about what Conner's parents must be going through right now.  I know all you Quarterbackers join me in sending our best and most supportive wishes to them.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Psychological and Physical Scars After the Indianapolis Daycare Crash

An SUV with two robbery suspects lost control and crashed into a daycare center today just as a group of 3 year olds were getting ready for nap in the front room.  One child is in critical condition, and three more had less serious injuries.  One adult at the center was injured, as was another bystander when their car was hit by the SUV during the chase.  Luckily, a lot of the daycare center's children were on a field trip when the accident occurred, or things might have been much worse.

Leaving your children at daycare each day can be hard.  Often, it's the parents who have more trouble separating than the kids, especially after the first week or two.  We drop off our kids wishing we could stay with them, but knowing we have picked a place for them to be cared for and nurtured and safe.

Anyone who's ever had kids in daycare knows the awful feeling of looking on the caller ID or having someone else answer the phone and realizing it's the daycare calling in the middle of the day.  This means that things are not OK, and that something has gone wrong with the plan.  It brings back those difficult feelings of separation all over again.

We can only imagine, then, the horror of learning that a serious incident has occurred at your child's daycare and that your child might be critically injured.  It is hard enough to leave kids for the day when you know they'll be OK.  Now, you don't even know that.  You'd better believe that it's going to be hard for a lot of these parents to drop their kids off at the alternative daycare site tomorrow.  It would hardly be surprising if a lot of them kept their children home.

And then there are the children.  Even the ones who weren't injured at all have to have been very frightened by the noise and commotion.  They saw their friends get hurt at a minimum.  We tend to think that young children aren't affected by these things, but that isn't really true.  They are affected, they just process them differently. 

The good news is that little kids don't have the cognitive skills to take what happened to them and extrapolate to what might happen some other time.  They don't see flying glass and become afraid of windows.  They might see flying glass and become afraid of flying glass, but that's not such a bad thing. 

The bad news is that because little kids don't have terrific verbal skills, they aren't able to talk through their experiences.  The result is that events like this sometimes get "stuck" in a pre-verbal place in their minds, where they are affected by them but can't really think them through.  This may well affect them later on, but it won't be necessarily in the form of intrusive memories or nightmares about the accident.  They might not remember the accident at all, but it can leave a mark.  That having been said, it doesn't have to leave that mark, and a few opportunities to "play" the accident with toys or draw it, if they are able, may be all they need to recover psychologically.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Shooting in Pittsfield Township: What Do You Tell the Kids?

This morning at about 8:30, a man was shot in the driveway of a home in a quiet subdivision of Pittsfield Township, the township right next to Ann Arbor, Michigan.  He was shot by a resident of the house whose driveway it was, and it is not at all clear what led to the shooting.  The resident then went inside and called 911 himself.

In a town like Ann Arbor, where murders happen once or twice a year, this is big news.  It is especially big news because about 20 children were standing at the bus stop adjacent to the house when the shooting happened.  All of them heard the shots, and some of them witnessed the shooting.

We can probably all agree that children shouldn't see things like that.  We can also imagine that we ourselves would be shaken by witnessing such an incident, and it is that much worse for children.  So what do you tell them?  How do you assure children they are safe when their neighborhood is a murder scene and their neighbor is the shooter?

First of all, here's what you don't say.  You don't say, "don't worry about it."  They are already worried about it.  Telling them not to worry really tells them that you don't want to talk about it, and while that might be the case it is not what they need right now. 

What you do tell them is that yes, this was scary.  Yes, you understand they are upset.  And then you offer them some perspective.  These two men knew each other.  No one is going around the neighborhood shooting -- this was a problem between those two people and only those two people.  You remind them that the man who did the shooting is in jail until this gets sorted out.  You tell them this is rare -- this has never happened before.  That might seem obvious, but kids don't have a good sense of what is likely as opposed to what is possible.  You let them draw while they talk -- it has a way of getting tongues moving.  You let them sleep in your room for a night or two if they want to.  This is an OK time for them to regress, and it's not permanent.  You keep their day as normal as you can.

At my school, we connected with this incident in a slightly different way.  Three of our families live in the next subdivision over, maybe 600 feet from where the shooting occurred.  One parent heard the shots.  Their children were at school when the shooting happened.  One of them asked me today, should she tell her children?

The answer to this, like the answers to most tricky questions, is that it depends.  My advice was that if they were likely to hear about it from someone else, then yes, you should tell them.  If they see police cars or helicopters or reports and ask what's going on, you should tell them.  If you yourself are upset enough about it that you're going to be talking a lot about it behind closed doors, you should tell them because they are going to know something is going on and feel like it's not OK to ask, and what they imagine is much worse than what actually happened.  If none of those things are true, you probably don't need to tell them.  If none of those things are true, then this isn't any different than a crime across town or across the country.  And as with all things in parenting, you play it by ear.  This isn't a science, it's an art.

Note:  Because it is not clear how this incident transpired and whether there was any element of self-defense involved, I have chosen not to name either the shooter or the person who was shot, in keeping with this blog's policy not to name perpetrators.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Washington Shootings: Moving On or Just Moving?

Early this morning, Seattle Police shot and killed the alleged gunman in the murders of four Lakewood, Washington police officers.  Whatever motivated this man to do what he did, he will never hurt another person again.  So ends the story.

The story doesn't really end there, however, because there is plenty of traumatic stress for those involved and plenty of follow-up news coverage for the rest of us.  The long process of coming to terms with what happened is just beginning for those who witnessed the shootings and the families and fellow officers of the victims.

As this story has unfolded, a lot of anger has bubbled to the surface.  It seems that this anger is pointed, broadly, in two directions.

The first is at the gunman.  This makes sense -- he is the one ultimately responsible for his own actions.  It comes as no surprise to those of us who watch police dramas on TV that the suspect did not come out of his confrontation with police alive.  That is not to say in any way that his shooting was not appropriate, but rather that, when hunting for a cop killer, the preservation of his life is not the highest priority on everyone's mind.  Generally, they come quietly or they come dead.

The second place that anger is directed is at Mike Huckabee, or more broadly at the criminal justice system.  Huckabee, when he was governor of Arkansas, granted clemency to the alleged killer.  This was one of what appear to be a large number of opportunities that were missed, both before the Arkansas clemency and after, to keep this man away from the public.

We all know that Mike Huckabee, or this or that prosecutor, or this or that judge, did not pull the trigger in these shootings.  By being angry and blaming them, however, we are reassuring ourselves that this could have been prevented.  We need to do that, because the alternative is too scary to fathom -- that there are people out there who just want to kill other people, we don't know who they are, and they can't be stopped.  By blaming these officials, we tell ourselves that if only everyone did their jobs we would be safe.  I have no idea whether any one or all of these people should have done anything differently, given the information they had at the time.  I do know that even if they had, they would not have stopped every violent sociopath out there.

If you want to understand the primal fear we are shunting to the side, try talking to the young child of a police officer this week.  They will tell you they don't want their mom or dad going out for coffee.  The bogeyman is real.  The one in Washington may be gone, but we don't want to reckon with the idea that there may actually be other ones hiding in the closet.

Monday, November 30, 2009

What if You Survived the Lakewood Police Shootings?

By now you've probably heard about the murder of four uniformed Lakewood, Washington police officers in a coffee shop yesterday morning.  There seems to be no doubt that the victims were targeted because they were police officers.  Police have a suspect and have been trying to find him in a series of very visible but unsuccessful attempts today.

A lot has been, will be, and should be written about these courageous men and women and their surviving families, including nine children.  The spontaneous outpouring of grief and support is amazing.  The owner of the coffee shop chain where the shootings occurred is an ex-cop himself, and he said yesterday that since his employees were unhurt he was mostly concerned for the families.  Who can blame him?

But the fact of the matter is that there were a handful of other people in the coffee shop when the shootings occurred yesterday -- both staff and patrons.  Police have said that it took some time to get full statements from them because it was so hard for them to describe what they saw right away.  Who can blame them, either?

It is not uncommon for survivors of shootings, particularly shootings in which multiple people are killed, to feel survivor's guilt.  They wonder why they lived when others died.  They feel that if only they had done more, they might have saved others.  Most often, they find some solace in the knowledge that everyone there was a target, and had they done anything different they might well be among the dead.

This situation is a little different.  The other patrons were not, in fact, targets themselves.  It seems pretty clear that the gunman was looking to shoot cops.  It is not as simple as realizing that they had to save themselves.  But in fact, they did have to save themselves.  While they may not have been targets to begin with, had they confronted the gunman they undoubtedly would have become targets.

When all is said and done, however, four police officers are dead in a highly publicized and sensational shooting that is making the national news, and the only people in any kind of position to stop it, one might argue, were the staff and other patrons.  While we all know that we don't blame them and we don't think they could have stopped this, that probably isn't how they are feeling.  That kind of guilt can lead to isolating oneself, and that's a very bad thing to do after a traumatic incident.

Add to this the wrinkle that the gunman is still out there.  The survivors have to be concerned, at least on a gut level, for their own safety.  They are witnesses, and he clearly doesn't care much about human life.  It has to be hard to get up and go out in public under these circumstances.

Most police departments have supports in place for families of officers killed in the line of duty and also for other officers and their families who understandably have renewed fears for other officers' safety.  Fewer communities are really set up to support the civilian survivors of an incident like this.  This is a time when a community-based CISM team is critical.  I hope there is one out there, or that someone asks for one on those people's behalf.  They need our support, too.

Update:  The suspect in these murders was shot and killed by police on December 1.  Hopefully, that will alleviate some small amount of the stress the survivors are experiencing.

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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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