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Line of Duty Death Notification: It’s Never Easy

Preparing your agency for a line of duty death begins with acknowledging “It’s not a matter of if, but a matter of when” 

Updated May 4, 2017

Regardless of your position within emergency services, you will eventfully be tasked with some extraordinarily difficult responsibilities. And it’s not difficult to imagine yourself in a chief, administrator or other leadership position where you will be relied upon to address these challenging tasks.

As a past chief, I know that the mere thought of having to deliver a line of duty death notification to the family of a staff member has kept me up at night. Due to the gravity of this task, I am surprised that the exact skills needed to tackle this issue are not taught or mentioned in the many leadership training courses one takes on the way up through the ranks.

We in emergency services have to fully realize that we lose a firefighter, EMT/paramedic, or police officer each and every day. Inherent risks simply come with these jobs. So we must acknowledge those risks and prepare for them on an individual and agency-wide level.

Preparing your agency for a line of duty death begins with acknowledging the following statement: “It’s not a matter of if, but a matter of when a LODD will strike my agency.” 

There are a few basic skills that anyone delivering a death notification should be fully aware of:

  • Realize that this will be the most difficult task of your emergency services career.
  • The words you choose to say to the family members are crucial and will resonate in their memories.
  • Your ability to deliver a death notification properly will directly impact how that family will cope with the situation and how well they will be able to move forward.

Importance of speaking with family

Needless to say, these basics are just the stepping stones to understanding how to approach a LODD. There are many subtle nuances to remember when speaking with family members, many of which would seem to be inconsequential to the untrained personnel.

For instance, you should never break this tragic news at the front doorstep of the family’s home. Identify yourself when you arrive at the home and ask to be invited inside. First determine if the people you first meet are indeed the family members of the injured or deceased, and then ask for everyone to sit down.

This initial interaction with the family is crucial and requires a certain amount of caution. Please be aware that delivering this news over the phone is, generally, unacceptable. When sitting down in the living room with the family, make sure to keep good eye contact with each of the family members present. This shows that you are being attentive toward them and that you are being honest and genuine.

Begin with a simple statement such as “I’m sorry to tell you” or “I have some tragic news to share with you.” Be direct and use words such as ‘died’ or ‘is dead.’ You should avoid phrases that can be perceived as phony or cliché, such as “passed away” or “is with God now.” The one that raises my anger the most is, “You’ve got to be strong!” 

Make sure to use the injured or deceased’s name at all times, even though it may be difficult for the family to hear. Avoid using any complicated emergency services jargon. This will only confuse the family members and complicate the situation even further with additional “translations.” Remember, the first words you say will stay with that family forever!

While some of these guidelines may seem overly sensitive, try putting yourself in their shoes. Receiving news of a family member’s death is probably one of the most difficult things to hear, so a little extra caution is necessary.

Here are a few additional points to consider:

  • Be sensitive and open to families and allow them to express grief and anger. However, be sure to protect your personal safety at all times. I have always taught providers to keep a two-arms-length distance when delivering the news.
  • Expect many, many questions. If you don’t know the answers to all of them, it’s perfectly correct to say, “I don’t know, but I will try to get you an answer.” It’s imperative that you DO NOT speculate on any answers whatsoever.
  • Offer simple gestures to the family, such as making any needed phone calls, transporting them to the hospital, or helping to arrange any immediate child care.
  • Be sensitive to the diversity of family structures and the different ways certain cultures choose to express their grief. Individuals need to be treated with dignity and respect regardless of their family structure (domestic partner, common-law spouse, etc.) or culture.

Regardless of your training or background, death notifications will never be emotionally easy to do, nor will they become easier with practice. However, with the proper training and high levels of solemnity and consideration, death notifications can be delivered in a manner that will minimize hardships for all the parties involved.

CISM Perspectives has designed the Quick Reference Card for LODD’s and death notifications. It explains how to best deliver death notifications as well as how not to do one. If you or your agency would like a complimentary copy, please contact us at cism79@frontiernet.net or visit www.cismperspectives.com and we’ll be glad to send one to you promptly.

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