The Uvalde Massacre: What’s in Store for First Responders?

May 27, 2022

I hadn’t planned to write another blog this month, but the school massacre in Uvalde, Texas, and the massacre in Buffalo, New York, compelled me to put my thoughts on paper. I’m thinking about trauma and first responders and the emotional wallop created by mass casualty incidents, especially incidents involving death and injury to children.

Mass casualty incidents: Mass casualties create their own firestorm. Superheated media reports, a rush to judgment by the public, the agencies involved (see my blog on the Parkland Shooting), and the exploitation of human tragedy for political gains. Mass casualty incidents are unique in their ability to overwhelm a first responder’s usual capacity for metabolizing trauma. Witnessing so much carnage and emotional pain is simply too much, even for the professionals.

Officers responding to mass casualty incidents report the agony of walking past the dying and wounded as they attempt to secure the scene and locate the perpetrator (s). They can still hear cell phones ringing in the pockets of the dead. And still see the gruesome damage weapons do to the human body, especially children.

Uvalde is exceptionally tragic. First responders, like psychologists and other helping professionals, need emotional distance to do their jobs effectively. Officers in this small town apparently knew many of the victims and their families. Two of the responding officers lost family members in the massacre. Many of the officers, I presume, have young children of their own at home. In a flash, they can put themselves in the place of the agonized survivors.

Tragedies involving children: Cops are resilient, hardy individuals with their own ways of handling the stress of what they see on the job. Neither of which are effective in dealing with child victims.

  • You can’t blame a child for their death or injury or the misdeeds of adults.
  • You can’t make a joke. Gallows humor is distasteful. There is nothing funny about the victimization of children.

First responder beliefs: The Uvalde massacre, The Parkland massacre, and the Sandy Hook Massacre all upend the necessary, but often unrealistic, beliefs held by many cops and other first responders.

  • I am not helpless.
  • I’m action-oriented in response to emergencies.
  • I remain clear and effective under stress.
  • I can control people in crisis.
  • I can control my environment.
  • I am unaffected by gruesome events.
  • People are better off because I was there.

Lost along with these now deflated first responder beliefs is the norm respected by the rest of us—adults are meant to protect children, not harm them. Our moral compass starts to spin. We feel disoriented, untethered to life as we know it.

What happens next? The officers, firefighters, dispatchers, and medical personnel who responded to this tragedy will be inundated with help from various sources. Some people and organizations who show up will be culturally competent in dealing with first responders.

Others will be trauma junkies looking to make a name for themselves. Real healing takes time. It can take years to wade through all the second-guessing, multiple investigations, depositions, lawsuits, etc. Every iteration forces the individuals involved to relive one of the worst times of their lives.

Healing is possible: There is healing, and it comes from various sources, not necessarily the official ones. Healing comes from peers, people who have walked in each others’ shoes. It comes from family, friends, and spiritual advisors. It requires an abundance of compassion for self and others, tolerance for one’s own human limitations, the habit of healthy living, and the courage to ask for professional help sooner rather than later.


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