Feature - As part of Speed Awareness Week, the person who has to knock on your door with tragic news

  Posted: 22.11.20 at 10:03 by The Editor

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IN the final feature to coincide with Speed Awareness Week on the roads, Wiltshire Police highlight the role of the Family Liaison Officer.

These are the people who have the terrible duty of telling people the bad news from a road accident and then trying to help relatives of victims try and put the pieces back together.

Here one of those FLOs tell their story


THE KNOCK at the door from a police officer late at night is something everyone dreads.

But what is it like for the officer whose job it is to deliver the heart-breaking news that someone's loved one has sadly died?

Family Liaison Officers, or FLOs as they are known in the Force, are trained to be that first and continuous point of contact for grieving families.

This week is Road Safety Week and to raise awareness of the charity Road Peace who support those who have been bereaved or injured as a result of road collisions, it is important to tell the story of someone who has that terrible duty to speak to families.

PC Tom Wilson, who is one of Wiltshire Police's FLO Co-ordinators, has been doing the difficult but rewarding role for much of his 28-year policing career.

He joined the Force in 1990 and became a traffic officer in 1998.

The very nature of the job of a traffic officer and the unfortunate fact that a large part of their work involves investigating serious or fatal road traffic collisions, means he began working as an unofficial FLO from 2002.

He said: "I was just told I was going to be a FLO, that was what it was like back then in the very early days.

"Before that it was just something that all officers picked up as part of the job, but obviously some people took to it better than others and had that natural empathy and human touch. It was always a role that I felt very comfortable in."

PC Wilson says the main skills a FLO needs are good communication, good empathy and a good resilience to not allow yourself to be affected by the day-to-day tragedy and grief.

"It is a very specific combination of skills that you need," he said. "You need to be able to have that connection with the family and give that support when they are going through such a difficult and traumatic time, but you cannot let it affect you.

"You need to stay strong and be able to move on to the next case each time. It can be very difficult, and, very understandably, it's not for everyone."

The vast majority of the cases that Wiltshire FLOs deal with are road traffic collisions, but PC Wilson has also supported the families of plane crashes, police officers who have died, and someone who was lost in the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami.

He said: "There are cases that stay with you and sometimes it can be for the smallest reasons, an odd detail, or a moment that affects you.

"Obviously one of the hardest things is dealing with parents when children have died. One that has really stayed with me is telling a mother that both her children had died in a car crash.

"She was understandably distraught and I just sat with her for two hours while we tried to find a family member to come to her - it was very harrowing."

PC Wilson said there wasn't a set way to approach a case as often it was dependant on the circumstance of the death and the reaction of the family.

"Every time I am going to give someone the bad news that a relative has died, I run through it all in the car on my way over," he said.

"Firstly, you need to make sure you get everything right, you need to have your facts correct, because that is the only way to build trust and build that relationship.

"Then, I often run through the exact wording I am going to use. You cannot beat around the bush, you have to break the news directly and clearly so there is no chance of any misunderstanding.

"Although, the fact that a police officer is knocking on someone's door means they usually understand what you are going to say before you have to say it."

An FLO usually stays in contact with the family throughout the investigation until the culmination of the inquest or the court case.

They are there as a contact between the family and the police investigation, passing on news and updates, answering questions, and hopefully building a relationship so they can ease the process.

However, it is not a compulsory service and sometimes the relationship can be a fraught one - if the victim's family does not want to engage with police or is angry about the circumstances of the death.

They all receive specialist training ahead of taking on the role and are given appropriate support from Occupational Health both during and after their contact with a case.

And recently Wiltshire Police opened up the role to include police staff as well as officers, meaning we now have civilian investigators working as FLOs.

It is obviously a difficult and challenging job, so why has PC Wilson continued to do it for so long?

"It is ultimately very rewarding. That, of course, is the greatest motivator for being a police officer, because a lot of what we deal with isn't very rewarding.

"I am constantly surprised and touched by people's gratitude for what I am able to do. I do get letters of thanks from families.

"I don't think I am doing that much, but clearly what I am doing is very helpful for them, and that means a lot."

The role of FLOs could be made a lot easier if road users stuck to the speed limit, put on their seatbelt, weren't under the influence of drugs or alcohol and weren't using their mobile phone whilst driving.

These simple acts would drastically reduce the number of RTCs resulting in serious injury and fatalities.

Next time you get behind the wheel of a car and think about exceeding speed limit, think of those Family Liaison Officers who have to deliver that heart-breaking news and hope they never have to knock on your door.

There is never an excuse to speed.