Immediate Aftermath of Attacks

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What people need most in the moment of crisis is for feelings of safety and security to be restored. They may also have needs that are idiosyncratic, as individuals all respond differently. The need to protect the young and preserve the dignity of the dead is a near universal sentiment. The honor guard that stayed with the body of Martin Richard [a victim of the Boston Marathon bombing] not only afforded him the dignity and respect he deserved, but also allowed his father, with a severely injured wife and young daughter [also victims] to leave the scene. These kinds of actions are easy to take and very important for victims and family members. Developing plans for community care should be a high priority. — Leonard et al. 2014, p. 36

Investigate the Incident

Agencies need to prepare for the reality that a mass attack site will be a crime scene and that it will need to be treated as such for some time while the crime scene investigation is completed. This means preparing for the logistics involved, including securing locations for investigators and conducting most post-attack activities away from attack sites. It also means working with outside agencies and federal partners during this critical time frame.

Tips and Resources for Post-Attack Investigations

The Police Foundation's after-action report on the San Bernardino terrorist attacks describes key issues and provides recommendations for post-attack investigations (see Braziel et al., 2016, Chapter 7, "Investigations").

Agencies need to prepare for interviewing possibly hundreds of survivors and witnesses. Our interviews revealed cases in which survivors were held for hours without water or food while waiting to be interviewed after a mass shooting. Advance planning needs to cover how to avoid such situations and provide for the health and emotional support of survivors and victims.

Provide Immediate Mental Health and Emotional Support for Victims, Survivors, and Responders

Professionals should begin providing mental health assistance and emotional support for victims, survivors, and responders as soon as possible. Immediate reactions can be especially important for first responders and victims. Immediate reactions usually are reported among a larger number of individuals than are longer-term reactions.

Tips and Resources for Providing Immediate Mental Health and Emotional Support

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's (SAMHSA's) 2017 research bulletin, titled Mass Violence and Behavioral Health, is a guide to immediate mental health symptoms, treatments, and interventions; it also covers mental health and care over the longer term (SAMHSA Disaster Technical Assistance Center, 2017).

As noted in SAMHSA's 2017 bulletin on mass violence and mental health, "Common reactions include physical symptoms such as headaches, fatigue, gastrointestinal upset, appetite changes, chest pain, rapid heart rate, or high blood pressure; cognitive changes and dysfunction; and increases in emotions such as fear or anxiety, anger or rage, and sadness" (SAMHSA Disaster Technical Assistance Center, 2017, pp. 5–6).

From the same SAMHSA bulletin, we found that key immediate health interventions need to include rapid psychological assessment; psychological first aid; and rapid education on stress reactions, coping strategies, and when and how to call for further professional assistance. These services need to be matched with community outreach campaigns and coordinated with public and media communications to let the larger community know about them.

Provide for Family Assistance (and Notification) Centers and Post-Event Victim Welfare

There will be a need for physical locations in which families can gather, receive information, and be reunited with—or notified about—loved ones. Furthermore, there will be a need for in-person mental health counseling, clergy counseling, psychological first aid, and other family assistance services. These service sites will need to be secured and accessible only to those who need them. The same physical locations also will need to address media access and visits by dignitaries.

Tips and Resources on Family Assistance Centers and Notification

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) created a guide for state and local agencies on providing family assistance services following mass casualty incidents (because of either mass attacks or other disasters). The guide focuses on a Family Assistance Center concept that is intended to provide all of the above services at one location. The concept discusses immediate services, transitional services, and long-term services (FBI Office for Victim Assistance and NTSB Transportation Disaster Assistance Division, undated).

There is a key need to provide families with information that is as timely and accurate as possible. One solution is to try to maintain a single master record (which can be a folder, if necessary) about each victim or survivor.

Our expert interviewees noted that there may be substantial process issues involved in verifying deaths—a process that must include close coordination with coroners' offices. Agency planning on assistance centers and notification needs to include coroners' offices; otherwise, delays and confusion can result.

Media and Communication Strategies

Planning and training considerations need to include public and media outreach in addition to communication with those affected. Media and public announcements should be coordinated through a central public information officer and staff who are recognized by the media as the authorities on what is currently known and what current instructions are.

Agencies need to be prepared to manage a surge in volunteers, onlookers, and people who might exploit the situation. Agencies should direct these individuals away from attack scenes and toward alternate designated locations.

Tips and Resources on Communications and Media

The Virginia Tech shootings after-action report provides coverage of communication and person-management issues (TriData Division, System Planning Corporation, 2009).

If a specific group was targeted in the attack, one key communication strategy will be to provide extra patrols around and protection of that community to increase security. For example, providing additional protection to the Orlando-area LGBTQ community following the Pulse nightclub attack was a key issue raised in the after-action report (Straub et al., 2017).

Conduct Near-Term Debriefs

The lessons-learned process—and, more importantly, the process for identifying next steps for short- and medium-term actions—needs to start soon after the incident with debriefs from involved responders. The Police Executive Research Forum's (PERF's) Post-Critical Incident page provides guidance on debriefs (PERF, undated d).

The Helpful Resources section of PERF's toolkit includes further guidance and forms on debriefs (PERF, undated c).

These debriefs are about gathering information for making decisions; they are not about therapeutic techniques. Critical incident stress debriefings, in which those involved in an attack are asked to describe their experiences and emotions in detail, have become controversial. There is debate as to whether they do more harm than good (Burchill, 2019).

Next Page in the Post-Attack Phase

Planning and Training for Post-Attack Actions