Within half an hour after the initial shootings, a
police psychologist was positioned at Columbine High School to begin critical
A common procedure for law enforcement agencies and
fire department, debriefings simply give employees a chance to discuss their
reactions to a traumatic event. Trained counselors typically lead debriefing
sessions for both groups and individuals.
The practice of debriefing first responders started
after the Vietnam War, said police psychologist Lottie Flater of
Nicoletti-Flater and Associates, who works with the Jefferson County Sheriff’s
Office. Because the war was so controversial, returning soldiers seldom
discussed their combat experiences. As a result, many developed post-traumatic
stress disorder, which is characterized by anger, depression, insomnia,
substance abuse or a host of other mental and emotional effects.
To help employees avoid those problems, the
Sheriff’s Office encourages officers to undergo a debriefing if they have
participated in a traumatic event of an unusual nature.
the First Responders
On April 20, 1999, Flater and her associates
debriefed individual officers, SWAT team members and school resource officers.
Psychologists frequently work with employees in groups so they can share
reactions or ask each other questions about what happened. The people involved
in a group debriefing usually worked together during the crisis.
While the police psychologists worked with those who
had been on site, a victim advocate came to the Sheriff’s Communications
Center to debrief dispatchers.
Employees Share Reactions
In the case of the Columbine shootings, the agency
offered debriefings to all employees—not just those who responded to the
incident. Those who handled other work while the crisis unfolded needed to be
able to ask questions about the shootings, understand what their co-workers had
experienced and express their own reactions to the event as well, Sheriff John
P. Stone decided.
So, on June 1 and 2, 1999, the Sheriff’s Office
held several debriefings for employees who wanted to participate. A four-person
group from The Counseling Team in San Bernardino, Calif., which handled part of
the Columbine debriefings for the FBI, flew out to lead the session.
Over the course of two days, employees gathered at
Columbine High School and walked through the building. During the tour, they
heard an overview of the response efforts and the results of the investigation
thus far. The goal was to help employees fit their own work into the larger
effort and also learn what tasks co-workers had performed.
After the overview session, employees split into
groups to discuss their reactions to the incident and the continuing media
coverage. About half of the 600 employees in the Sheriff’s Office
participated. Individual follow-up sessions were available for employees who