The majority of research regarding the effects of job stress in policing has been conducted with patrol officers. Only in very recent years have other types of “first responders” such as fire and ambulance personnel been taken into account when attempting to tally the toll these professions extract.
All research in the studies on traumatic stress have supported the contention that first responders experience a high level of stress when responding to traumatic scenes and are at a much higher risk of experiencing the ill effects of post-traumatic stress, and potentially developing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) than the general public or any number of other professions. There is additionally ample support for what may be termed “cumulative career stress”, which is less the effect of one particularly horrendous event and more the accumulation of stress from repeatedly being exposed to, and bearing witness to, the various human tragedies that warrant emergency response.
There is, by contrast, virtually no research into the effects these same traumatic and repeated tragedies have on forensic personnel, especially civilian or non-sworn crime scene investigators. We are rarely the first on scene, but we are usually the last. While it may seem on the surface that any information gleaned from these studies of first responders could be readily applied to the “last responders”, there are vital distinctions in duties that should be taken into account.
Crime scene personnel are not merely routinely “exposed” to any given scene, but they are immersed in it, generally for hours at a time, if not days. We become familiar with every scene on a much more intimate level than any first responder typically is. We see, smell, hear, and touch all of it, often up close and personal. Each victim, living and dead, each suspect, living and dead, each piece of evidence, however gruesome it may be, is photographed, recovered, and recorded. Then it is all experienced firsthand, again, when it is dried, packaged and reported on.
This is an entirely different level of contact than the majority of first responders. The emergency is gone, but the destruction, gore, and often the sorrow, remain. We are, individually and collectively, a special breed indeed. There is no question about that and no easy way to explain it to people who are not us. But being the type of people who will voluntarily enmesh themselves in all the worst humanity has to offer is not the same thing as being immune to it.
Generally, forensic personnel are able to perform their duties without any emotional response or certainly without overwhelming emotions. This is part of our professional ethos, of course, but for many also a part of their persona that allows any of us to be successful in this field at all. We observe and report on facts and facts alone. The question of how these facts may impact us as human beings is rarely a topic of discussion or even consideration.
Last responder stress is likely the least discussed topic in the forensic profession, but perhaps of the most importance. Failure to address the effects on last responders of both cumulative career stress and the stress of responding to a major trauma such as mass shootings and child deaths, have potentially devastating effects on personnel, careers, and, ultimately, the forensic profession.
“Undisturbed calmness of mind is attained by cultivating friendliness toward the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous, and indifference toward the wicked.” Patanjali
With a special thank you to author Sandra F. Keep up the good fight.