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Officer trauma support better but more work needed says HMI

Trauma support for officers has improved five years after Grenfell – but more must be done, HMI and the Fed have warned.

Support for officers who respond to major incidents with fatalities has got better but long-term monitoring and early advice for Uplift recruits needs to improve, according to policing leaders.

Work to help officers recover from trauma triggered by serious incidents is under scrutiny as forces mark the fifth anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire.

HM Chief Inspector of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services Andy Cooke said earlier intervention by welfare teams is now essential.

He said: “Much like their colleagues in the fire service, police officers demonstrate incredible dedication and bravery in the most exceptional and stressful circumstances. It is essential that officers are given the right support.

"Generally, we have found that workforce wellbeing is a priority for forces with a good range of support offered, and there is evidence of recent investment including in more occupational health resources."

But Mr Cooke warned: “Efforts can be undermined when officers are unable to access support due to high workloads and working hours. Forces could do more to provide preventative wellbeing support, and to support the wellbeing of those in high-risk roles."

The College of Policing provides trauma guidance to help police forces ensure their officers are properly supported, which HMI encourage police leaders to use.

There is also concern about both the long-term impact of dealing with a major incident and the repeated exposure to life-threatening situations.

On the night of the fire, officers used riot shields to protect fire fighters from debris as they went into the building, kept back family members from the building and gave first aid to victims of the fire.

In the days that followed, officers supported work to identify people who had died, informed families, protected the crime scene cordon and helped run community facilities for those affected.

Police Federation of England and Wales Wellbeing Lead, Belinda Goodwin, shared HMI's concerns.

She said: “Forces in general have got far better at recognising the impact of trauma, and understanding that exposure to continuous trauma has a real impact on an officer’s mental health.

“As an example, the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower saw officers called to assist firefighters. Their duties on that evening were unprecedented and these very same officers are today living with the effects of that harrowing night,” she said.

“Our members were also called upon to conduct body recoveries at Grenfell - this is not unusual around the country for such incidents. This illustrates that officers can be exposed to horrific trauma constantly and consistently, and must then deal with the impact this has on their mental health.”

A number of officers were so badly affected that they left the service.

And Grenfell was one of three major incidents in which people were killed – the other two being terrorist attacks that included the death of a police officer.

Met officers were drafted from across the capital to attend all of them.

One officer shared on social media: “When talking about Grenfell Tower it's worth remembering that the same response team across London that was on duty that night were also on lates the day [PC] Keith Palmer was murdered and nights the evening of the Borough Market attack. Some officers were on scene for all three events.

“ERPT A (Emergency Response and Patrol Team) had an awful year in 2017, as did many other people, but it was particularly bad for the Officers of A Team across the 32 boroughs.”

The Fed argued forces need to get better at tracking the number of serious incidents that response officers deal with.

Belinda Goodwin said: “There are ways that trauma exposure can be recorded. The software is available but forces are not investing as much as we would like. PFEW has worked on a police trauma checklist - and is continuing to develop this with our research department - that will hopefully lead to forces collating exposure data.”

And current provision is still largely provided by the NHS as generic and over-subscribed talking therapies.  

She explained: “A further issue is PTSD diagnosis. This currently must be done via an NHS psychiatrist which can take months - surely there must be a quicker way of doing this? It is encouraging that PTSD is recognised as a risk to our officers, but there is still further work for forces to do regarding prevention and identifying what that support looks like.”  

The Fed also warned forces need to prepare Uplift recruits better for the realities of the job.

Belinda Goodwin said: “PFEW would like to see further work done around prevention and with officers at the recruitment stage. By doing this interventions can occur on a regular basis and coping mechanisms and support can be offered at the earliest stage.”

The first stage of the Grenfell Inquiry praised the response by officers on the night of the fire.

But the report said better communication was needed between Blue Light responders and civil contingency work needed to improve.

And since then, there have even been calls for forces to be included in local authority house planning decisions to improve communities.

Mr Cooke said: “The public rightly expects police forces and fire and rescue services to work together as effectively as possible during major incidents. Improving interoperability has been and will remain a challenge, and more work is needed to address inconsistencies in the national picture.”

Partner agencies have re-affirmed their commitment to get better.

London Fire Commissioner Andy Roe said: “I give my commitment that we will continue to listen and make changes to our service and work to drive improvements in the built environment to ensure such a tragedy can never happen again.”

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