What is a critical incident?

A critical has been defined in many ways but one commonly accepted definition is any event that overwhelms a person’s usual ability to cope (Everly/Mitchell 1993). For first responders (police, fire, dispatch, medics, EMT's, nurses, armed forces, crime scene investigators, etc), some of the familiar critical incidents are:

  • Officer involved shooting
  • Death or injury of a co-worker
  • Suicide of a co-worker
  • Prolonged/failed rescue
  • Incidents involving children
  • Mass casualty
  • Large media influence
  • Victim known to responder
  • Exposure to infectious diseases
  • When your own safety is in peril
  • Administrative/Co-worker Betrayal 

A critical incident often produces fear, terror or helplessness (APA 1994). A responder may be involved in one incident to one hundred incidents throughout their career. The stress they are experiencing may be cumulative due to number of years on the job or the number of incidents experienced. Not everyone reacts the same way to the same or similar incidents.