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Preparing your family for a critical incident: A checklist for first responders and their families

Proactive measures to navigate and support each other through challenging times

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It is important to discuss the various critical incidents that responders may typically encounter, aiming to prepare rather than scare. Emphasize the comfort and control that come from being prepared.

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Critical incidents are unpredictable, and emotions can run high when they occur. It’s crucial to address these issues proactively before first responders and their families find themselves in a challenging situation.

Although these conversations may be difficult, they are necessary to ensure preparedness and a better understanding of how to cope with such incidents.

Conversations to have with your spouse/partner

It is important to discuss the various critical incidents that responders may typically encounter, aiming to prepare rather than scare. Emphasize the comfort and control that come from being prepared.

Consider how family members would be notified and the potential impact on your children. Feel free to approach different scenarios individually, such as a shooting versus being shot.

Engage in open communication with your spouse/partner, listening to feedback and requests. Remember that it’s OK not to have all the answers as many agencies offer assistance during such situations. Ensure that you are aware of your agency’s resources for critical incidents and share those with your spouse/partner. Many agencies offer specialized counselors, EAP, chaplains, peer support teams and wellness units, which can offer valuable assistance.

Preparatory conversations

Many departments have emergency notification processes that allow for input from the responder. It’s essential to discuss these with your spouse/partner and consider their comfort level.

Explore questions such as who will help with notification, who your spouse/partner would like to be present if something happens to you in the line of duty, and how your children should be notified. Understanding the notification process can bring peace of mind to both you and your family.

In the event you are transported to the hospital, consider whether you would want your children to come and if not, identify individuals who could watch them at a moment’s notice. Some of this preparation may involve reaching out to supportive family and friends to educate them on the process and how they may be able to assist your family if need be.

It will be important to have a conversation with your spouse/partner about what they do and don’t want to know about any critical incidents you may be involved in. There are some details of horrific traumas that could vicariously traumatize your spouse/partner. Setting appropriate limits with your spouse/partner on what will and won’t be shared will ensure healthy communication and prevent unintentional harm.


A critical incident can occur on your first day on the job or never happen at all. Being prepared is crucial to avoid getting caught off guard.

Having your affairs in order, such as an Emergency Notification Form, will, living will, powers of attorney and final instructions, can provide peace of mind. It’s essential to be financially prepared as well, with 3-6 months of savings available for your family if needed, and to avoid overextending debt.

Engage in discussions with those you would want to be involved in case of an emergency, such as zero-notice babysitters and other responders who would care for your family. Make sure these individuals are on your children’s school pick-up lists and that your kids are comfortable with them.

Prepping kids

Most of the time, children don’t need all the answers; they simply want to know that a plan exists. They look to parents and adults for guidance and reassurance that everything is under control. It’s essential to plan out your answers ahead of time, keeping them age-appropriate and free from excessive details.

Above all, let your children know they can trust what you say. Being truthful with them, even in challenging situations, can help prevent distrust and anxiety. Children who believe their parents will tell them the truth are less likely to worry about receiving accurate information and less prone to filling in the blanks with their imaginations. As kids of responders are generally accustomed to long, flexible and demanding days, being late coming home may not be a significant concern for them, unless something physically happens to you, in which case they may not even notice until you’re ready to share the information.

Kids have questions, too

Depending on your children’s age, they may have numerous “what if” questions about your job, stemming from TV shows, movies, school discussions, or simply things they observe. They might ask questions like whether there’s a chance you could be shot, if you might have to shoot someone, or if getting shot means you’ll die, referencing news stories about officers being shot.

Additionally, you may notice signs of anxiety in your children, such as not wanting you to go to work or being reluctant to go to school due to fear of not being around if something were to happen to you. Addressing these concerns and providing reassurance can help alleviate their anxiety and promote a better understanding of your job’s risks and responsibilities.

When a critical incident occurs

It’s essential to notify your spouse or partner, even though the information you can provide may be limited. Remember that it is always helpful for them to hear your voice and know that you are okay or are going to be okay. Ideally, your family will hear from you before seeing the incident on TV, social media, or through other sources. Offer them a direct contact number for someone they can call for updates. If a trusted person, like peer support, is available to provide additional information, allow them to do so. Focus on the investigation at hand and trust your spouse or partner to handle the rest.

Remember to accept help from others. If you’re exhausted and need a ride home or assistance with food, a change of clothes, or help with canceling court appointments, don’t hesitate to accept the support. Navigating a critical incident is a challenging time, and allowing others to help can ease the burden on you and your family.

Spouse/partner dos

Take a moment to breathe deeply and process the information you’ve just received. As the situation unfolds, you are now responsible for setting the tone within your home. Keep in mind that investigations can be lengthy, and your responder may not be home for several hours. The best way to support them is by creating a peaceful, supportive and comfortable environment for their return. To avoid misinformation and unnecessary stress, limit your family’s exposure to media and social media until you have more accurate and reliable information.

Spouse/partner don’ts

Avoid sharing your responder’s personal information or discussing the situation with others until you know the full circumstances. Stay calm and refrain from sharing the news with your children or support network until you have a plan and accurate information. Reaching out to your responder’s friends might put them in an uncomfortable position, so it’s best to wait for updates from official sources. Also, resist the temptation to search for information on media or social media platforms, as this may lead to misinformation and increased anxiety.

Be patient

Be prepared for a lengthy process when your responder is involved in a critical incident. They may need to consult with an attorney, have photographs taken, consent to a drug test, surrender their weapon and provide a round count if it is an officer-involved shooting, or turn over their clothing and equipment. They may also need to wait for all witness interviews to be completed. This entire process can take hours. It might be helpful to have someone wait with you during this time for support and company. It is important for spouses/partners to develop an understanding and supportive group to turn to when these situations arise.

When your responder comes home

When your responder comes home, it might be best to have young children, who could be awake and distracting, taken care of by people you know and trust. For older children, consider sitting down with them to explain the situation honestly and reassuringly, and discuss how to interact with or give space to the responder upon their return. Depending on the political climate, it may be wise to immediately lock down social media, use aliases, and remove any obvious responder-related items from outside your home, such as thin blue line flags. If unfamiliar individuals approach your home, avoid engaging with them, as the media can sometimes use ambush tactics and play dirty.

Provide your responder with the space they need. Refrain from asking questions about what happened and focus on expressing your relief that they’re safe. Offer a calm, quiet space for them to share their feelings without pressing for details. Be prepared for a range of emotions and understand that these are normal reactions to an abnormal situation. Keep in mind that they might have felt like a perpetrator during the investigation process, which is a typical experience. Ensure you have food on hand, as they may be famished from the high-stress situation. Finally, be aware that their phone may be flooded with messages from concerned friends and colleagues. Allow them to respond as long as it doesn’t cause further distress.

The next 24 hours

It is crucial to let your responder sleep as much as they need after a critical incident, as it is essential for processing their experience. Clear their schedule to allow for downtime and be understanding if emotions remain high. There are several things to avoid during this recovery period, including alcohol consumption, exposure to media, engaging in social media, and discussing the incident with anyone who doesn’t have a need-to-know basis. These steps will help create a supportive environment for your responder’s healing process.

24-72 hours

If your responder chose not to participate in an interview on the day of the incident, they will likely need to return to the department for one later. Be prepared for continued raw emotions, as adrenaline and other stress-related chemicals may still be leaving their body for some time after the event. It is essential to monitor media and social media use within your home and encourage your family to engage in outdoor activities and exercise. Maintaining a supportive and encouraging environment is crucial for your responder’s well-being during this time.

If your responder is injured/hurt in the line of duty

Take a moment to breathe deeply and process the information you have just received. If your responder spoke to you, consider whether this is truly an emergency and trust the information provided. Remember, your responder is not alone at the hospital. Two minutes of planning can save you 30 minutes of reaction time, so before rushing out the door, consider the following: Are you safe to drive? Do you need more information before heading to the hospital? Where are your children? Do you have your phone and a phone charger? While it’s not a time to overreact, be aware that seriously injured responders can quickly become a media event. Rely on your trusted and pre-identified support network to help with your children and communicate your preferred messaging. Keep your phone with you for any questions or updates.

Talking to kids

Honesty with your children beforehand is crucial, as it helps them trust you when you say their mom or dad will be okay. Encourage supportive friends and family to be present if needed. Establish a true and clear message for the children, which doesn’t have to be detailed. For example, “Mom/dad was hurt at work today but is okay. They’re at the hospital and being taken care of, so Aunt Linda is going to get you from school.” Ensure to promise and provide updates on the well-being and safety of the responder parent. Older children should be allowed to visit the hospital when reasonable and safe, as it is important for them to witness the care, camaraderie, and heroics surrounding their responder parent.

Handling bad news

In case the news at the hospital is bad, telling the children “there’s no change yet” is an acceptable answer. It’s crucial to deliver bad news in person, and your responder’s agency can provide assistance through department clinicians, peer support personnel, chaplains and victim services personnel. These situations are undoubtedly challenging to think about and even harder to experience. It’s natural to have fear and emotions during these times. Rely on your agency for support during difficult times, as they are there to help and care for you in any way possible.

If your responder is admitted to hospital

Your agency will likely attend to all your needs during difficult times, including providing protection at the hospital, arranging meals and hotel rooms, and organizing visits from colleagues. If the injury occurred while on duty, Workers’ Compensation will typically cover the expenses. These challenging moments bring out the strong bonds among the thin blue, red, gold, green and gray families, as everyone comes together to offer support and care.

NEXT: Benefits of therapy for first responder families

Dr. Jaime (Brower) Archuleta is a licensed clinical psychologist working out of Denver, Colorado, and is a Board Certified Specialist in Police & Public Safety Psychology, American Board of Professional Psychology. She is the Founder and Chair of Brower Psychological Services. She now serves as the Vice President of Peer Support and Clinician Training and Membership for Lexipol. Dr. Brower founded the National Emergency Responder and Public Safety Center (NERPSC, LLC), acquired by Lexipol in early 2023.

Dr. Brower has devoted her career to working with those in law enforcement, corrections, detentions, fire, military and other high-stress occupations, as well as ensuring the health and well-being of their family members. She further specializes in risk and threat assessment, school violence and hostile workplace investigations. Dr. Brower is particularly passionate about training and consulting with agencies regarding best practices for enhancing resiliency and wellness. Dr. Brower is the proud recipient of the 2019 CIT Instructor of the Year award!