When a major casualty event occurs in the U.S. or elsewhere, there are only glimpses in the media of what is actually taking place on the ground.
Catastrophic flash points such as the Boston Marathon bombing, the Orlando massacre and perhaps worst of all, the Sandy Hook shootings of elementary school children in Newton, Connecticut in 2012, are often depicted in streaming images of sirens blaring, people running through streets clogged with emergency vehicles and the incessant commentary of social pundits trying to make sense of it all.
In the midst of all the chaos and carnage though, is an army of disparate first responders, from paramedics to police officers to fire personnel. Behind them, is a phalanx of second and third responders; those who not only gather evidence and try to build a case against the perpetrators, but also help identify primary victims and bring their families to their side.
"As the most senior law enforcement agency in the U.S.," says FBI Office for Victim Assistance Program Manager Sarah J. Wallis (not her real name), "we have to be concerned with victims."
On a recent trip to CSC's NHQ in Ottawa, she described her role in the FBI's Victim Assistance Program. "Usually you hear it first on the news and you just know," she said. "You start packing your bags and wait for the phone call."
FBI Victim Services Program Managers and Victim Specialists like Sarah can be at the scene within hours of an event occurring. Their first task: to identify and assist victims/families and eventually compile a list of victims. "We work with hospitals and local emergency services to identify as many of the victims as we can."
These include not just the primary victims, but also family members and friends who may have witnessed the event. Primary victims are offered services by Wallis and her team that often include flying family members in to be at their side from anywhere in the country.
"We have funds available to us that allow us to cut through the red tape and bring family members together as quickly as possible," said Wallis. "We'll call them up, tell them to go to the airport and their tickets will be ready for them at the gate. We'll also help secure accommodations for them when they arrive, which can be challenging, especially for something like the Boston Marathon bombings."
For the agents and their team of Victim Specialists, the task on the ground can be gruelling. "You are guaranteed not to sleep for the first three days," she said. "You may make it back to your room for a shower and a change of clothes and then it is back out again. After that, it is 15-hour days for as long as it takes."
The toll on FBI agents and victim specialists is huge. Not only are they faced with the initial and often intense trauma faced by victims and their families, but they are also called upon to break the news of a loved one’s violent death to next of kin. In the case of the Sandy Hook shootings, where 20 children between the ages of six and seven were shot by a lone gunman, the task can be too much.
"Sandy Hook was horrible. It rocked everybody to the core," said Wallis. "It is a small community and they didn't have many resources, so even though we didn't have the lead, we really had a huge role to play.
"We had a number of people on the team say they just couldn't do it anymore, and that's fair. I'm so glad that we have an environment (in the FBI) that we've created for them to say that. Sandy Hook was incredibly challenging and they just couldn't."
If secondary trauma is one of the occupational hazards of being a member of the FBI's Victim Assistance Program, it is not viewed as a sign of weakness. "We encourage people to take time off after an event, because it takes time to process." Wallis admits that it is not for everyone, and that even the most robust of her colleagues can be felled by what they see and hear.
"Some people don't know their limits," she said, "and so we need to tell them that it is okay to step away and take time off."
These hazards, she said, cannot be understated. "Suicide rates among first responders quadrupled over the next five years after the Locherbie bombing in Scotland," she said. The bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988 occurred over a residential area killing 243 passengers, 16 crew and 11 people on the ground.
"The type of trauma we are exposed to can cause severe psychological injury to the responder," she said. "These psychological injuries must be treated the same as physical injuries. Seeking help must be normalized and valued by the agency."