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Volume 2003-1

The Australasian Journal of Disaster
and Trauma Studies
ISSN:  1174-4707
Volume : 2003-1

Douglas Paton, School of Psychology, University of Tasmania, Locked Bag 1342, Launceston, Tasmania 7250, Australia.. Email: Douglas.Paton@utas.edu.au

Volume : 2003-1

Douglas Paton

School of Psychology,
University of Tasmania
Launceston, Tasmania

Expanding Perspectives on Duty-Related Traumatic Stress

As research in duty-related traumatic stress gains momentum, new populations and new perspectives are increasingly coming under the research spotlight, and existing issues are being re-examined from different viewpoints. One such issue relates to a growing recognition of a need to question assumptions regarding the homogeneity of the risk status of the groups that comprise a given profession. Rather, groups whose characteristics, relationships with the wider organisation, and patterns of involvement with critical incidents should be treated as discrete until the significance of these differences, if any, is articulated. Sub-groups should not be treated as homogenous simply because of a macro-level similarity in the nature of their role or the kinds of incidents they might find themselves involved with. If differences are found, they can provide new opportunities for exploring the mechanisms that underpin traumatic stress reactions.

Dean, Gow and Shakespeare-Finch present research that explores the implications of critical incident exposure for two key sub groups within firefighting population; career and auxiliary firefighters. Their discussion illustrates the importance of the analysis of sub-groups and raises several issues that should be accommodated when conceptualising traumatic stress reactions. In doing so, they warn against making overly simple assumptions regarding the manner in which traumatic stress reactions manifest themselves.

Another area that is receiving more systematic and critical attention concerns the range of hazards that emergency responders may encounter and which might impact on their current and future well-being, satisfaction and performance. While attention, in this regard, tends to focus on the triggering event, the risk faced by emergency responders may be further influenced by processes that emerge during the post-event period. Regehr picks up on this point in regard to her analysis of the manner in which societal use of the outcomes of public inquiries into deaths in care can impact on emergency responders. This analysis is framed in the context of the growing use of post-mortems as a device intended to contribute to the goal of identifying errors, facilitating future response effectiveness, and avoiding future deaths. Regehr discusses how an activity with ostensibly positive developmental aims can be subjugated by the cultural prerogative of ascribing blame. She provides an account of how involvement in this process can result in emergency responders feeling unprotected, attacked and presumed guilty of incompetence or negligence.

The development of an inventory of hazards, and their systematic assessment, is essential for theory testing and development and for the advancement of a comprehensive range of training and support resources for emergency responders. Recognition of the importance of these elements within the traumatic stress 'hazardscape' adds weight to arguments for expanding the explanatory mechanisms invoked to account for traumatic stress reactions. For example, the nature of the experiences described by Regehr indicate a potentially powerful role for several social-cognitive processes (e.g., blame attributions, perceived control, counterfactual thinking), all of which could be hypothesised to influence well-being within contexts such as those described. The implications of these post-event socio-legal hazards for traumatic stress risk has received only a fraction of the attention devoted to understanding the corresponding impact of the actual traumatic event per se.

Regehr's findings highlight the need to extend research to include the hazards faced by emergency responders that arise as a consequence of the manner in which they interact with socio-legal and criminal justice procedures. Her work also highlights the needfor the proactive introduction of educational, legal and support strategies for those whose professional work brings them into regular contact with such processes.

This last point, the provision of support resources for those involved in traumatic events, is another area that has been the subject of considerable debate and development. Ørner, King, Avery, Bretherton, Stolz & Ormerod discuss the divergence between the post incident coping and adjustment strategies used by experienced emergency personnel and the principles that inform the delivery of debriefing services. They describe officers' preferences for immediate access to colleagues and those with whom they feel close, to talk freely and flexibly about events, and prefer to be consulted about a possible need for early intervention. The model of coping strategies they present provides a basis for the future systematic analysis of coping preferences and their relationship to the experience of events. Importantly, this article, and the other contributions to this edition, reiterate the need for the critical analysis of all aspects of duty-related traumatic stress research.


Douglas Paton © 2003. The author assigns to the Australasian Journal of Disaster and Trauma Studies at Massey University a non-exclusive licence to use this document for personal use and in courses of instruction provided that the article is used in full and this copyright statement is reproduced. The authors also grant a non-exclusive licence to Massey University to publish this document in full on the World Wide Web and for the document to be published on mirrors on the World Wide Web. Any other usage is prohibited without the express permission of the author.

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