One of the key components of leadership during critical and major incidents, is the ability to plan and facilitate effective pre-briefing and debriefing sessions (Laureate, 2010). These sessions are crucial to the ongoing incident for a number of reasons, including the fact that they are one of the few times within the incident that a broader and systemic analysis of the situation is considered (Reason, 2000). This assignment considers the various roles and values of pre- and debriefing sessions within critical and major incidents as well as considering the various components of an effective briefing session.
One of the current challenges, facing all sectors of leadership within a critical incident, is to manage communication across the incident team (Eyre, Crego, & Alison, 2011). It is also important that a culture of sharing information and communicating is established early on, especially in critical incidents which by their very nature often evolve quickly (Mullins, Alison, & Crego, 2011). One of the ways that this can be facilitated is to develop a system by which team members can voice their theories and also receive the information they need, in order to inform their own area of work within the incident. A pre-briefing or debriefing session provides the potential for this support to be received (Whitfield, Alison, & Crego, 2011) as well as maximising the impact of the investigation or critical incident response.
One technique used in briefing sessions is the use of focus groups (Morgan, 1996), which aim to analyse the motives and assumptions behind decision-making (Clapper & Massey, 1996). The key component for any briefing session should be to support communication exchange so that team leaders and relevant staff have all the current and up to date information, relevant to their role in the incident. Secondly there should be clarity around the purpose of the briefing and to roles assigned after the briefing session, especially if a recommendation is to change direction or expand elements within the work. Thirdly, opportunity should be provided to hear immediate issues that need to be addressed, such as logistical problems, resources, intelligence, availability of personnel etc. Finally recommendations are made on the future direction of the work, which could include following several different lines of inquiry.
In addition to the initial pre-brief there is also the need for ongoing communication amongst and across teams in an incident. One of the reasons for this is that critical and major incidents are major contributors towards stress and feelings of being overwhelmed, amongst police officers (Leonard & Alison, 1999). It is therefore important that efforts are made to minimise the impact of each critical incident scenario on team members and to provide support both during and after the incident (Crego, Alison, Roocroft, & Eyre, 2011). The use of pre briefing and debriefing sessions can address some of these issues particularly in a culture where expression of emotion can be prohibited (Frewin, Stephens, & Tuffin, 2006), such as in the police service.
Another advantage of ongoing briefing sessions is it provides a mechanism in which to review assumptions underlying current decisions. For example in the TDG the investigation had an initial start date and a first victim. Part way though the investigation this changed, when a new earlier victim’s case was discovered. This provided an opportunity to conduct a briefing session and explore the potential impact of the new case by reviewing the current lines of inquiry and updating previous presumptions currently held about the victims, the offender and the list of suspects.
Despite all the positive outcomes briefings do need to be handled effectively by competent and trained officers, otherwise negative group emotions can dominate (Haslam & Platow, 2001). Other problems of group dynamics such as undue bias can also be confirmed (Almond, Alison, Eyre, Crego, & Goodwill, 2011) and defensiveness and blaming can occur (Riek, Mania, & Gaertner, 2006) if members feel threatened or their work unfairly criticised.
Pre-briefing and debriefing techniques can therefore be applied across a range of critical and major incidents, and adapted for a variety of uses depending on the stage of the incident. In addition to sharing information about the incident, they can facilitate communication across different incident teams and across agencies as required. They can also focus on listening to concerns about emotional impact on officers, resource prioritisation or they can be used to brainstorm and consider alternative lines of enquiry. They can be flexible in timing length depending on the team composition, regularity of meetings and familiarity of the team members with each other.
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