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January 18, 2017

Community team safety and Doorstep Decisions

Doorstep-Decisions for Community team safety 

Community team safety Personal Safety often hinges on difficult decisions made on the doorstep.  When approaching the front door of a previously violent client’s house, knowing some of their background and history and recent state, what threshold of danger would YOU set for the meeting you are about to have?

Low Risk? – Medium Risk? – High Risk?

Setting your danger threshold

My basic danger threshold meter is a dial I construct in my head.  It is a standard pressure-gauge style instrument with a pointer in the middle.  The pointer extends out to the edge of the dial where at far left it may point into a large green zone, or at centre to an amber zone and then at far right into a red zone.

The colour codes are universally well-understood (cooper colour codes):

Green:  no foreseeable risk, no need to be especially attuned to risk, this is all under control.  I am relaxed but aware of my surroundings, cycling through relaxed/alert attitudes.

Amber:  forseeable risk of danger, definite need to be switched on to signs of risk, this could get out of control at any moment.  I am alert now, and in a preventative attitude.

Red:  danger imminent, exit this situation at first opportunity, situation is out of my control.   I am now in a survival attitude and focussed on protecting myself.

If, through a lack of information, attention or experience, a worker’s danger threshold is in the green zone and she is telling herself:  “if this meeting goes badly, at worst I will get thrown out of the house” then the ingredients for a tragedy are already in place.

Many people have seen the often-quoted experiment carried out to demonstrate ‘inattentional blindness’ (see http://theinvisiblegorilla.com) .  A huge percentage of the people in the experiment demonstrate this phenomenon of “not seeing what is in front of your face because you are concentrating on something else completely”.

I don’t want to spoil the surprising results of this experiment, so I won’t describe it here, but please do go and have a look at the Invisible Gorilla.  Incredibly, people don’t see what is right in front of their eyes.  They don’t notice things.  They have no recollection of certain things, cues or even people being in some circumstances.  Why?  Because they weren’t looking for those things at the time.  They were focussed on the task they had been given.

QUESTION about community team safety:  When you visit a client, are you in your ‘everyday’ state with no particular focus, and simply ‘looking for the basketball’, or are you in a more alert attitude and receiving signals, ready for when the man in the monkey suit makes his appearance?

Setting the danger threshold and being aware of the traps for community team safety

Certain scripts – let’s call them safety traps – seem popular when people at work discount their gut feelings about the danger they may be in.   One of them is described above, and it is called the “What’s the worst that can happen” safety trap.  There are a few more common ones:

‘it’ll never happen to me’

After years of hard-won experience, it is possible that an experienced lone-worker’s mindset could develop a script like this one:  “I’ve done thousands of visits in my time and no client has hurt me yet – those things don’t happen to me in my work”.  Is it possible that these feelings of jaded denial could be blunting her awareness, or putting her permanently in a too-relaxed attitude?

‘I’ll get in trouble if I don’t just get on with it’

Perhaps, through peer pressure and  role-related pressure, a newer lone-worker could develop the following script:  “my manager will give me a real earful if I go back to the office and tell her I decided to terminate this visit on a gut feeling” .    This discounts her professional knowledge, judgement and experience.  It also points to issues about the adequacy of the supervision and support being offered to the worker.

‘I can handle this, I’m up for the challenge’

Perhaps, through some sense of pseudo-professional bravado and an emerging over-confidence, the worker develops a mindset like this one: “I can handle whatever happens with this client because I know them, and anyway if it all goes crazy today, it will make for a great story at the staff meeting next week” then we have a real problem on our hands – bravado erring on recklessness.

‘This vulnerable person needs my / our help and I am the person who can do it!’

I have started to call this the ‘Super Hero Syndrome’ – the widespread but dangerous thought that a social worker, community worker or healthcare professional has some special duty, over and above their legal duty of ‘reasonable care’ to the vulnerable people they look after. 

I often argue that, when things turn bad for a Lone Worker in a house, such as being assaulted or locked in or kidnapped, how many vulnerable people are there now at that location?  Two, of course!   One who is vulnerable because of their complex needs or chaotic lifestyle, and the other because she is the victim of violence!

Don’t be that person who discounts their own safety in favour of the other person’s – instead make sensible decisions about your safety (we call it making ‘reasonable decisions’).

It is important that we recognise this “thresholding” that happens on every doorstep.  The critical moment is when the worker fails to adequately assess  “Considering what I know or don’t know about this client, what is the worst that can happen?”

For all of these reasons, the mindset of the worker, setting that threshold of danger and the decision-making which happen on the doorstep are all critical issues to lone worker safety.

Prevention and Management of Violence and Aggression 31

Gerard O’Dea is a professional violence-management trainer/consultant who has been active in personal safety training since 2006.  He regularly delivers training to local authority, housing organisation and other community-based staff teams who work with sometimes difficult, distressed or dangerous members of the public.  His approach to lone-worker training is pragmatic, functional and based on a keen analysis of the issues in the real world of community working.  Gerard published “Lone Worker Personal Safety:  A Guidebook for Health and Social Care Staff” (on Amazon in Paperback and on Kindle) in 2014.  For more information please visit:  https://www.dynamis.training/lone-worker-personal-safety/

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Gerard O'Dea

Gerard O'Dea is the Director of Training for Dynamis. Training Advisor, Speaker, Author and Expert Witness on Personal Safety, Conflict Management and Physical Interventions, he is the European Advisor for Vistelar Conflict Management, a global programme focussing on the spectrum of human conflict.

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