Breaking the news of a road tragedy

Family Liaison officer Richard Coleman, Northamptonshire Police
Family Liaison officer Richard Coleman, Northamptonshire Police

It is hard for most people to imagine being at a scene in which a man or woman has been seriously injured or killed in a horrific car crash.

But what would it be like to also be the person responsible for breaking the news to the victim’s loved ones?

In Northamptonshire that terrible duty falls to the force’s family liaison officers, whose role involves not only assisting in investigation but in helping families and crash survivors cope with the aftermath.

So far this year 24 people have died in collisions on the county’s roads, five more than the total for the whole of last year.

Last year alone there were 1,661 casualties in Northamptonshire including 19 fatalities, 286 people seriously injured and 1,356 slightly injured.

These sad statistics also mean that Northamptonshire Police’s family liaison officers have been called into action far more than they would want to be.

Operations tactical unit PC Richard Coleman is one of the force’s most experienced family liaison officers (covering the A14 – Kettering, Corby and Wellingborough areas) and the winner of a national police award for his work.

He said: “It is not the most pleasant of roles I have to undertake but it is a necessity.

“I will deal with the person at the scene. Some people still don’t carry any identification on them and we can end up knocking on doors and asking ‘does such and such drive such and such a car?’

“Sometimes it takes waiting for a missing person’s report, sometimes it is the next day when you will have to break the news.

“Sometimes you have to ask some leading questions about the missing person before you can say ‘I’m sorry, they have been killed in an accident.’”

He added: “Most people have photo ID on their licences but that doesn’t come into it when people have had injuries to the middle part of their face, you end up needing dental records and DNA.”

After a deceased person has been taken to a mortuary, there is often a lot of work to be done in breaking the news and supporting families. Sometimes this side of the work has taken PC Coleman to different locations around the country.

But on an emotional level, what is it like to have to confront these tasks as part of your daily work?

PC Coleman said: “We have so many unfortunately you just have to step into your role and know what needs to be done.”

A family liaison officer’s role can see them taking on as many as five cases at one time and the care of a single family can stretch beyond 12 months.

Family liaison officer duties will include attending court cases with families or dealing with practical issues such as insurance and advice on home alteration arrangements when there is a life-changing injury.

Because of the nature of the work, they have to be on call at any time if they need to be contacted by one of the families they are working with.

According to PC Coleman, one of the greatest challenges can be walking into an unknown situation.

He said: “You never know what family you are walking into or the type of family. You try to do as much checking as you can before you go.”

He added: “The worst cases are when no-one is there at a house and you need to start talking to neighbours and work out what you can without divulging any details.

“You don’t want a family member to hear news about a loved one from someone else before you have got to them.

“Each case is different and you have to be prepared for any eventuality.

“On one occasion I ended up with a person at a mortuary a couple of days after Boxing Day, but you never know when the phone is going to ring or what is going to happen.”