What is a Critical Incident ?

Emergency services personnel may be exposed to critical incidents at any time during their careers. A critical incident is any event that has a stressful impact sufficient enough to overwhelm your usual coping strategies. Critical incidents can be sudden, shocking and outside the range of ordinary human experience. However, it may also be an event that has a specific personal significance to the individual and may result in strong emotional and/or physical reactions.

These reactions are relatively normal and commonplace. In fact, up to 87% of all emergency service personnel are affected at some time during their careers by a critical incident. Work experience, years of service or experiencing similar incidents do not necessarily make emergency service personnel immune to the impact of critical incident stress.

There is a range of strong emotional effects associated with traumatic events which are common. Learning to recognise these reactions and emotions that occur following an abnormal event can help you to understand and feel more at ease with these feelings. This in turn can help you adjust to what has happened.

Common reactions to critical incidents

Each person's experience is different, however there are some common reactions among people caught up in a critical incident. It can be reassuring to know that these reactions are not unusual.

Some common reactions and feelings are


  • Disbelief at what has happened.                                                   
  • Numbness - the event may seem unreal, like a dream.


  • Of death or harm to yourself or your family.
  • Recurrence of the event.
  • Personal vulnerability.
  • You may experience panic or anxiety.


  • Outrage at what has happened or at who "caused it, or allowed it to happen".
  • Anger at the injustice and senselessness of it all.
  • Anger at other emergency service personnel or the public for not acting quickly enough.


  • The feeling of helplessness because of the inability to prevent some things from happening.

​Shame or Guilt

  • For having been exposed as helpless, emotional and needing others.
  • For not having reacted as you would have wished.
  • For not having reacted as others have.
  • If you have made a mistake.


  • About personal loss.
  • About human destruction.
  • For the loss of the belief that the world is safe and predictable.

​Effects on behaviour

Tension - You may be easily startled or agitated.

Sleep Disturbances - You may be finding it difficult to sleep or you may be having thoughts that prevent sleep eg: flashbacks.

Dreams and Nightmares - You may be dreaming about the incident or other frightening events.

Intrusive memories and feelings - Your concentration may be affected by memories, flashbacks and feelings about the event. You may be trying to shut these out and this may lead to the numbing of feelings.

You may also experience episodes of reliving the critical incident, known as flashbacks. These can include visual images and other sensations associated with the event such as smell and taste or pain.

Social Withdrawal - You may have a strong desire to be alone or you may even fear being alone.

Physical Sensations - You may experience a range of physical sensations including tiredness, heart palpitations, tremors, breathing difficulties, headaches, muscle tension, aches and pains, loss of appetite, nausea, diarrhoea, or constipation.

Delayed Effects - Any of these effects may occur months or even years after the event when something else triggers them. They usually only last for a short period of time and gradually diminish over the first few weeks. Many people have no reactions to critical incidents at all, this is perfectly normal too.

While all or any of these symptoms are not unusual, they can be distressing for you and your family until you understand that it is more often than not, a normal reaction to an abnormal event.