Sunday, November 19, 2017

First Responders Require Specialized Training to Deal with

 Special Needs Individuals

By Patricia O’Connor (Guest contributor)

Death of individuals with alleged disabilities through the actions of law enforcement has been reported in the media and has contributed to citizens of the United States protesting and seeking changes in methods used by law enforcement agencies.

NBC News reported on March 14, 2016 that almost half the people who die at the hands of police officers have some type of disability. According to an investigation conducted by Portland Press Herald in 2012 approximately half of the 500 people killed each year by police were mentally ill.

Police officers have become the default responders for incidents, including those involving mental health calls. They often find themselves in situations where urgent medical care by trained and certified professional practitioners would be more appropriate.

Misdiagnosis of symptoms or the misinterpretation of displayed behavior as being aggressive, resisting arrest, or threatening by law enforcement and by medical responders has resulted in the unnecessary injury or death of persons with special needs. Communities are ultimately legally liable. The question for community leaders has to be, “Why is this misunderstanding occurring and how do we fix it?”

So let’s examine this phenomenon – lack of training for first responders.


First, let’s admit first responders do not face the daily challenges of their jobs with intentions of hurting, maiming or killing individuals with special needs. They are merely faced with circumstances which are unfamiliar to them. These circumstances require specialized training and knowledge. So often initial training has not been conducted and certainly, on-going training isn’t provided either.

First responders are required to have specialized training in other areas of their complex duties; i.e., weapons training, first aid, social behavioral skills, etc. in their particular field in order to serve their communities and respond appropriately to the needs of those whom they serve. Individuals with exceptional needs require exceptional care. First responders must have knowledge and training with the appropriate skill sets to deal with specific disabilities and needs so that their response is suitable. Interaction with people afflicted with mental disabilities requires specific and focused interaction just as interactions with people having other medical disabilities require special treatment.


As they say in the real estate industry, it’s all about “location, location, location”, well in dealing with mental health issues it’s all about “training, training, training”. Training must be relevant, engaging and consistent. Training sessions including both theoretical application and practical “role playing” exercises work best. Training is a continuous occurrence. It needs to occur routinely but not so often that it neither detracts from everyday duties nor develops into something so mundane that it becomes stale and ineffective. Training would save lives, both for the individuals encountered by first responders and the first responders themselves, especially those arriving on scene first – law enforcement officers.


Whether responding to a scuffle at a convenience store or a major natural disaster as witnessed recently in northern California those responding need to be equipped not only with the physical tools needed for the job but also with the mental tools for resolving these highly charged situations. People with mental disabilities present special challenges during these extreme emotionally events. First responders should be equipped to deal with them. We can prepare for these situations through a serious of preventive measures; such as, placing placards on doors or windows indicating that special needs individuals are inside, creating communication systems with access to databases that first responders can “call up” while responding in order to ascertain what they might find at the incident scene and to alert them to obstacles or challenges they may encounter upon arrival. Just knowing when and where won’t be enough. Responding units will need to have skills sets that de-escalate the situation and resolve them in an appropriate manner. Additionally, it is essential for communities (civil authorities, medical, fire, law enforcement and citizens) to come together to address these issues.

A humane society is measured by its care for those who are most vulnerable. How will we be judged?


Patricia is a Doctoral student in Educational Administrative, with emphasis on Special Needs Education. She regularly provides insight and input to the Department of Homeland Security as they prepare Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) guidance for dealing with special needs issues during times of crisis.  She is the founder and CEO of SirenUSA, an on-line training tool for first responders. 

“I can do things you cannot, you can do things I cannot; together we can do great things” – Mother Teresa

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