Critical Incident Debriefings

    Within half an hour after the initial shootings, a police psychologist was positioned at Columbine High School to begin critical incident debriefings.

The History of Debriefings

    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.

Debriefing 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.

All 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 wanted them.