Monday, August 10, 2009

What Makes an Incident a "Bad One"

I know it when I see it.

Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously used that line to try to define hard-core pornography.  That's how it feels sometimes trying to define a critical incident.  That's particularly true when you're dealing with first responders -- cops, EMS, firefighters -- who see this stuff every day and can't possibly be traumatized by all of it.  What makes one incident particularly bad?

I know it when I see it.

Yesterday, California Highway Patrol attempted to stop a car on a traffic violation in Dinuba, California.  The car wouldn't stop and the police chased it for about four miles.  Then the car ran a stop sign and hit a pickup truck carrying 5 children.  As of this writing, 8 people -- 5 children and all 3 adults from the car -- are dead.  Four of the children, ages 1,3,4 and 7 were ejected from the truck and died at the scene.

I know it when I see it.

There are certain rules of thumb about critical incidents.  There are certain types of things that are likely to impact a first responder -- line-of-duty-death or serious injury, officer-involved shooting, trauma involving children, and multiple casualties all raise red flags.  And yes, this was a multiple casualty incident involving children.  But that's not what makes me, and probably you, say that this is a "bad one." 

You just know it when you see it.

This one would probably be a big one even without the police chase.  An accident involving multiple dead children offends our sense of how the world should be and, if we are parents or have children close to us, makes us feel uneasy about their safety.  I don't know about you, but one of my first reactions was also to question how five children could possibly be riding safely in a pickup truck, and whether the fact that they were ejected means they weren't wearing seat belts or were riding in the back.  Someone has to be to blame.  Then you add in the car running a stop sign, and you have someone else to blame.  It makes me angry -- it probably makes you angry too. 

And then you add the police chase, which means there were officers on the scene who are now asking themselves what they could have done to stop that car or whether they should have given up the chase, and who witnessed the accident and were first on the scene to see the carnage.  The Fresno Bee already indicates some people are blaming them for the crash.  So now there's going to be an investigation, on top of the guilt.  And that's in addition to being mad at the driver and mad that those children weren't safe and afraid for their own children.

I know it when I see it.  It looks like that.


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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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