As a chaplain I have dealt with my share of hostile people. Sometimes they expect a certain level of service from the EMS/police/fire responders and perceive they are not getting it. Maybe their loved one has just died, and they don’t understand why they can’t see them right away. I can explain it’s an active crime scene investigation, but they feel they have rights that are more important. I’m in their way, and they feel justified in venting their full range of hostilities on me.
This behavior goes beyond that of the “difficult people” I mentioned in my last blog. They act in a hostile and threatening manner. In a situation like this, the chaplain should take their personal safety and the safety of all those around them very seriously. I have personally found that when threatened beyond my ability to manage the situation, the best approach is to deflect and escape since we are not armed-and-sworn law enforcement officers (at least most of us aren’t). But what happens if you are cornered or have few options for escape? Here are some options.
1. Keep good situational awareness. Don’t let tunnel vision take over. Watch the angry person but also those around them. Always know your escape routes.
2. Acknowledge the problem with a cool, calm voice and make sure your body language doesn’t present as threatening. People want to be heard. They want you to understand their issues. Be curious about the person’s story. We as chaplains love to hear someone’s story.
3. Allow the person to vent uninterrupted in a private place. My rule of thumb is to let people express their emotions the way they want unless it is threatening to anyone, causes a medical emergency, causes more commotion with the other people on the scene, or interferes with the rescue or investigation. Sometimes it takes thick skin on the part of the chaplain. Look for a quiet place where their behavior doesn’t interfere with rescue or investigation operations. This may or may not be possible every time.
4. Agree on what the problem is. Agreeing on the problem doesn’t mean that you agree on the solution, it just means you understand what the person’s perceived problem is.
5. Affirm what can be done. Try to come up with solutions and explain what can and can’t be done and why.
6. Assure follow-through. If you say you’re going to do something, do it. If you cannot accomplish a task then go back, if possible, and explain the situation. At least the person will know that you are trying to help and are looking out for their interest in the situation.
When it comes to hostile people the number-one rule is always make sure you are safe. There is no sense in getting yourself hurt or those around you. Watch for body language and tone of voice. That will tell you more about the state of the person than what they are telling you…even though that is important too. And if you are out on the field on a call, and you don’t feel safe, then don’t be afraid to get law enforcement backup. That is what they are there for.
Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. (James 1:19-20)
Chaplain Chris Wade
South Carolina Public Safety Chaplains Association