Master’s graduate applying education as part of police, fire grief program

Master’s degree alumna Catherine Bernstein is applying her NPS Center for Homeland Defense and Security education in Davis, California, where she is implementing a volunteer Trauma and Grief Support (TAGS) Program for the city’s police and fire departments.

The program is about providing what Bernstein calls “psychological first aid” at the scene of tragic events and serving as a conduit to broader resources for first responders and survivors as well.

NPS-CHDS master’s degree alumna Catherine Bernstein

“Our police and fire departments were searching for volunteer resources who could function in conjunction with the city of Davis public safety agencies to assist with community members on scene who are experiencing grief and trauma,” Bernstein noted. “Moreover, because the constant stresses associated with critical incidents and first responder duties can negatively impact public safety personnel, TAGS are accessible to the departments’ members.”

In developing the program Bernstein is using information from her CHDS coursework and from her thesis, “Building Team Belay.” The plan also incorporates Social Identity Theory concepts that are taught in the CHDS classroom. The theory’s notion of in-groups is essential to successfully serving first responders.

“Social identity is a precursor to the effective giving and receiving of social support, and social support is an essential element to fostering resiliency,” Bernstein said.

As the city’s Trauma and Grief Support Coordinator, Bernstein is continually on call and prepared to visit an incident that may involve matters such as loss of a loved one by traffic fatality, suicide, natural or accidental death, or homicide.  The program is also available to the Yolo County Coroner’s Office as needed to assist with a death notification.

TAGS are equipped with contact numbers that could facilitate victims connecting with resources, such as the county’s Mental Health Services or Veterans Services. The program differs from traditional chaplains in that it is non-religious and members don’t need to be credentialed or affiliated with a religious organization.

“We are not arriving in the role of therapists or counselors,” she said. “We are there to provide emotional first aid.”

Bernstein’s NPS-CHDS thesis examined the stress on disaster aid workers and the need to provide them psychosocial resources. The thesis recommends adapting an interpretation of the National Incident Management System (NIMS) that stipulates that the incident commander/safety officer has oversight of both the physical and emotional health of the responders. Linked with this interpretation would be the development of training modules to support it.

The recommendations further call for leaders to develop ways to accelerate group identity among disaster responder teams, leveraging precepts of “swift trust.”

A retired attorney with the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, Bernstein began working as a Volunteer in Police Services  with the Davis Police Department about a year ago. Throughout her career, working with law enforcement and emergency management agencies as well as a volunteer serving with search and rescue teams and as a law enforcement chaplain, Bernstein witnessed first-hand the psychological travails of first responders.

She approached Davis public safety leadership with a proposed action plan for implementing a Trauma and Grief Support Plan, providing them with draft a policy, volunteer position description, guidelines/code of conduct, and recommended training.

Bernstein is in the process of recruiting and training the first round of volunteers and is making it a point to be a familiar face in the department.

“The idea is to foster acceptance of TAGS as part of the public safety community,” Bernstein said. “If you end up on ‘that’ call and deploying to some devastating scene alongside the first responders, experiencing the same sensory impacts and emotional reverberations of the tragedy, not only can you possibly assist with distraught community members, but you may also earn the privilege of becoming someone you think it’s safe to approach back at the station. By the very nature of their service, first responders are constantly exposed to critical stress, witnessing and being a part of situations that they cannot share with their loved ones at home or civilian friends. That’s got to be isolating. I believe just being able to talk, informal ‘peer’ social support, can really make a huge difference.

“Right now, most of my day looks a lot like the station. I try to spend as much time as possible just being a presence, informally getting to know the members of the departments, and their routines, and letting them get to know me.”