Debriefing an important procedure after accidents

Don’t ask if any of the crew want to have debriefing – just make it part of the standard, routine procedures after a serious accident. That is the advice of the psychologist, Arto Nordlund.
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Don’t ask if any of the crew want to have debriefing – just make it part of the standard, routine procedures after a serious accident. That is the advice of the psychologist, Arto Nordlund.

After a serious accident, a person needs to be taken care of and provided with basic physical needs: food, drink and warmth. But following this period of relief it is time to arrange for debriefing.

Debriefing is a central part of safety work onboard the East Indiaman Götheborg. Photo: Lennart Fougelberg
Debriefing is a central part of safety work onboard the East Indiaman Götheborg. Photo: Lennart Fougelberg

– To talk about what occurred soon after an accident has occurred helps to create a deeper understanding of what took place. It may also be able to prevent somebody from plunging into a long, drawn-out personal crisis, says Arto Nordlund.
He explains that debriefing has three main objectives. The first is for the person affected to put into words what they have experienced. The process of relating events brings a sense of release, clarifies things and gives an opportunity for reflection. The second is to hear the versions of other people involved. In acute situations we tend to have powerful but narrow and fleeting images, which give a rather poor overall view. By listening to others involved it is possible to gain a clearer picture of the entire sequence of events. The third objective is to determine what actually happened in order to avoid misunderstandings and the spread of rumours.
– Debriefing also provides an opportunity to check how everybody feels and to find out whether anybody appears to need professional help, says Arto Nordlund.
He thinks that debriefing should be introduced as a routine measure after serious accidents onboard instead of asking whether those involved are interested in structured discussions. It is possible that those with the greatest need to talk do not realise the fact, or decline out of fear. Some people perhaps feel awkward if they have to ask for debriefing.
– It is not part of traditional seamen’s culture to talk openly about feelings with each other, even though I meet that attitude surprisingly rarely. Out of the sea officers that I meet when I lecture at Chalmers there are more and more who have experience of debriefing.

Debriefing
Debriefing was developed in the beginning of the 1980s as a crisis support method for the US ambulance service. Today it is used routinely by many Swedish authorities including the Coast Guard, the Police, the National Rescue Services Agency and the Swedish Armed Forces.

Structured group review
Debriefing is a structured, group review of an event moderated by a leader. The participants have all been affected by the accident, and there should be no more than eight people in the group. The leader may be anybody onboard who knows the necessary techniques. He or she opens the debriefing by explaining its objectives and rules. Then each person in the group describes their experiences while the others listen with­out interrupting.
– It is important to be able to finish your account of events without being interrupted. It feels very good to do that and the person can describe the whole event. Blame and accusations are not allowed.
An event should not only be described in terms of facts, but also sensory impressions and emotions. If a person does not spontaneously describe things in this area, it is the task of the leader to put questions.
– Memories of smells are particularly important. Smell is our most primitive sense and produces very strong memories. The basic principle is that debriefing is held on one occasion, but in the case of a major accident or if many people are involved it may be appropriate to arrange meetings for follow-up discussions, says Arto Nordlund.
Linda Sundgren

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