The Trauma Of…Community Tragedies

Members of the Greater Lowell Trauma Advisory Group created this summary sheet, based on a roundtable discussion held on February 25, 2014, at Lowell Community Health Center in Lowell, Massachusetts. Roundtable panel members represented the Lowell Fire Department, Lowell Police Department, International Institute of Lowell, United Teen Equality Center (UTEC), the Department of Children and Families (DCF), Lowell office, Lahey Behavioral Health/Mobile Crisis Team, Vet Center of Lowell, and Lowell Public Schools. The goals of this event were to:

1) Examine the protocols, systems, and tools first responders utilize to protect our community, and ways they collaborate effectively with other providers after a community tragedy occurs;
2) Explore the impact of highly visible traumatic incidents on the community as a whole, as well as the ways in which an event can trigger personal trauma and reinforce people’s negative core belief systems regarding safety and trust; and
3) Learn how others have “Transformed Tragedy” after traumatic events, through altruism, initiatives to honor those lost, and simple acts of human kindness.

A total of 35 providers, including first responders, social workers, clinicians, case managers, school staff, and health professionals participated in this event. What follows is a summary of our discussion. 


Protocols, Systems and Tools First Responders Use

The Fire Department has developed an Incident Command System for the entire city. They meet regularly with members from the Lowell Police Department, emergency medical services, shelters, schools, and the Department of Public Works, to discuss and refine the system, determine everyone’s roles during a crisis, and what to do after an event. Lowell Police Department described the work they have been doing around school safety.  Lowell Public Schools has formed a Critical Incident Response Team (CIRT). Forty-four social workers formed 6 teams who are on call each week to respond to school-related or school-involved tragedies.  There is also a district-wide crisis team to revamp the response system for schools, in order to have a unified approach. One example is “Enhanced Lock Down.” NEMLEC STARS (Northeastern MA Law Enforcement System – School Threat Assessment Response System) consists of members from the police and fire departments and schools who work together to develop plans of response. The STARS are clinicians who, in collaboration with fire and police staff, volunteer their time to respond to school-related tragedies. They provide clinical triage for staff and youth, referrals to mental health services, and support to administrators to determine best practices after the tragedy. It was reported that school districts are getting better at planning and responding to such events. Members of the Mobile Crisis Team are not “first responders,” but they often receive referrals due to the aftermath of tragic events and provide safety assessments for children and families. UTEC (United Teen Equality Center) are on call 24/7 and respond to violent, gang-related events in and around the Lowell area. Their goal is to diffuse situations and make sure there is no retaliation. They rely on their positive relationships with police officers to provide some “leverage” in working with the youth involved. Staff from the Department of Children and Families work collaboratively with other agencies during a crisis, especially when there is a risk of safety to children. They also provide connections to mental health providers, schools, and hospitals. The group talked about the prevalence of vicarious trauma (being negatively impacted by the trauma we take in, as a result of the work we do) among providers and first responders and the stigma involved. Critical Incident Stress Debriefing and Critical Incident Stress Management were defined and explored. The group also discussed resources available to providers within the Greater Lowell community. One way to combat vicarious trauma is through collaboration with other agencies that may be able provide other resources, information, and support, in order to avoid duplication of services and a team approach to save money and resources.

The impact of traumatic events on the community

The group talked about “The Ripple Effect”—the aftermath of trauma moving from community to community. Some events discussed were the Boston Marathon bombing and the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. Various responses to community tragedy were explored, and how experiences can differ based on culture, past trauma, and current sense of safety. Lowell Police Department described how families are torn apart when a homicide occurs. The Boston Marathon bombing emotionally triggered many people, but especially refugees and immigrants, who thought they were safe in their new county, until they discovered that terrorism also can happen in the U.S. Veterans were also impacted by the event, as it triggered memories of being in a combat zone. Vets began checking for weapons and carrying them more often and found it difficult to go back to public places. Members of UTEC talked about “violence as the norm” for many youth and how they have become desensitized to the traumatic events they experience or witness. 

The group talked about the impact of social and commercial media and explored the protocols for informing parents about situations in schools, as they often know ahead of time due to their children’s postings or emails.

The Lowell Public School representative stated that communication with parents after the event is the norm, as it is more important to make sure students are all safe first. Members talked about using social media in positive ways—as a tool to share important information, but also how it can be used to generate more violence (e.g., information shared could lead to retaliation from a rival gang). The DCF representative discussed the negative media attention DCF has received lately. Workers’ integrity and capability is being questioned and challenged, as staff begin to question their decisions, which creates more of a crisis situation. We explored how individuals’ reactions sometimes create more of an unsafe situation, and how this can lead to further trauma.

Transforming Tragedy

We watched two videos, “The Angel of Ocean Breeze” and “Boston Strong.” “The Angel of Ocean Breeze” told the story of one woman’s contributions to a community after Hurricane Sandy. The healing power of helping others was explored. Through music, news clips, and images, “Boston Strong” told the story about the bravery, courage, and small acts of kindness showed after the Boston Marathon Bombing. UTEC discussed the peace marches and other events they have sponsored after a community tragedy. Their hope is to send the message, “Violence Is Not Normal.” The group talked about the importance of living memorials to remember those lost in community tragedies. One presenter provided the example of the community’s response to a child’s death. This child loved music, and so they created a living memorial in the form of an annual fundraiser to raise money to purchase instruments and music classes for needy children.