First Responders and the Importance of Conflict Resolution

Oct. 1, 2008
When first responders reach the site of an emergency that is in progress, it often is unnerving and unsettling. They must keep their wits about them and

When first responders reach the site of an emergency that is in progress, it often is unnerving and unsettling. They must keep their wits about them and perform their duty while focusing on their own personal safety. And in certain situations, first responders must work to deflate rising levels of emotionalism to prevent further incidents.

Former police officer Bruce Anderson, a senior staff instructor at the Safety Center, offers a conflict resolution class that features training for how to deal with people during emergencies to supplement a first responder's initial field training. The main focus of the class is to teach first responders how to control the situation better and not be controlled by it.

“It's not really anything new,” says Anderson. “It's the same basics that we teach anybody. But we want them to know the indicators of violence that they should watch for in conflict and what that fine line is.”

Anderson begins his class with a reminder of the three basic rules of survival: stay aware, stay together and run as fast as you can. Anderson also points out the best traits used for defense are skill, prevention, awareness and attitude.

“You have to be able to evolve with what is going on around you. 9/11 is a perfect example. Nothing like that ever happened to us before,” Anderson says. “Never assume that the situation is going to be ideal.”

The formula for a conflict, if known, is simple to recognize. When people, differing views and a triggering event come together, the potential for a conflict is great.

Responding to People and Situations

“There are a lot of factors you're dealing with [in a crisis], people's emotions being the biggest one. When you bring emotions into a crisis situation, you eliminate logic and reason,” Anderson points out.

According to him, most people become emotional when they are given something they don't want or something is taken away from them. Emotion, gain, competition, relationships, peer pressure and personal attitude are all contributing factors in how a person is influenced to behave at any time.

Anderson makes a point of acknowledging that the victims and the victims' families aren't the only sources of conflict during an emergency.

“There's always going to be peer pressure among the ranks [of responders]. Old guys don't change their ways and new guys want to become the old guys, but they don't have the experience,” Anderson says. “But it's important to remember that machismo, cowboy antics can get people killed.”

Anderson also points out that assessing the situation and being aware doesn't just mean using all six senses. “Make it a learning situation. Identify specific threats against you, rally your resources and do not put yourself at risk” Anderson said.

There are four basic human needs: power, belonging, happiness and freedom. Anytime these needs are compromised, there is a potential for conflict, according to Anderson.

Power — Every human has the desire to achieve, accomplish, to succeed and to be acknowledged and rewarded for their endeavors.

Belonging — Every human wants to be liked, loved and accepted as part of a team, organization or family so that they can cooperate, share and contribute. “Anytime someone's family is compromised, you are going to incite violence. Baby-not-breathing calls or vehicle accidents cause lots of stress to a person's sense of belonging,” Anderson says.

Happiness — Every human wants to enjoy life, have fun and be happy with the choices they make for work and play. Anderson said that an emergency situation doesn't naturally make people happy, but first responders should always want to try and make it as tolerable as they can. “Your verbiage and mannerism can maintain your control over the situation and keep violence from occurring,” Anderson says.

Freedom — Every human wants the freedom to make choices, change their mind and find what they need and want from life. “Let people ask questions. Don't take away (that part of their) free will,” suggests Anderson.

Deflating a Hostile Environment

Inconsistency, error and a lack of safety or security certainly are main factors in creating a hostile environment, but misunderstanding and lack of communication can create severe issues in dealing with people during emergencies.

“So many family members want to know what's going on during an emergency or where the first responders are taking their loved one and a lot of times, they just want to be made to feel like they are important enough to have that information,” Anderson says.

Diversity and prejudice can be a huge obstacle while handling an emergency. Differing values and morals and attitudes can be perceived as inappropriate behavior.

“There is a way to put your hands on people or move them without seeming hostile. Understanding minor differences in values and morals can go a long way,” Anderson says, adding, “If you give fair play to all people, there will be less potential for conflict.”

A lack of respect for victims and their families and a demeanor of unprofessionalism can hurt an entire industry of a first responder's peers. Anderson points out that the general public doesn't have much of a concept of individual departments, so when one firefighter is involved in a scandal or a cop is on the front page of the newspaper beating up a victim, it damages the integrity of the profession.

“[First responders] need to know how to treat [combative people],” says Anderson. “The honor of one is the honor of them all.” People can become combative in several ways:

Aggressive — Shows a lack of respect or acting intimidating or forceful.

Subversive — Appears cooperative, but acts devious.

Submissive — Places blame or acts like a martyr; also can be patronizing.

Assertive — Stands up for their beliefs, values and morals without becoming hostile.

Hostile — Uses force, fear or intimidation.

Verbal indicators of impending violence include abusive language, threats, mentioning weapons, making unreasonable demands, self righteousness and curse words. Physical signs to watch for include a change in posture, staring, clenched fists, staggering and a nervous or anxious appearance.

Anderson warns that any threat of violence should be considered real and emergency responders should give plenty of space between themselves and the person issuing the threats.

“You have a right to do nothing if you think it will ensure survival,” he says.

Active and passive resistance both can be used to keep a violent situation from erupting. Both verbal and non-verbal techniques can be applied, as well as non-aggressive physical contact. Active resistance is more about creating an opportunity for escape and getting away from the situation.

“When it comes to an attitude of safety, having preventative procedures is the key. Most people don't have it in them [to be a killer],” Anderson says.

Elizabeth Wilson is a freelance writer from Sacramento, Calif. Safety Center Inc., Sacramento, Calif., was founded in 1934 with the mission to reduce injuries and save lives by providing safety education and training. They accomplish this mission by promoting lifelong safety and health through a variety of community and professional programs. For more information, call (800) 825-7262 or visit

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