In midlife, Maryland psychologist switches from clinical services to bank robbery consulting

By Henry Saeman, Editor
January 1, 2002



Richard Ottenstein, Ph.D. of Owings Mills, MD, has practiced psychology for nearly 30 years, focusing on a broad array of clinical services.

After so many years of an hour-by-hour schedule, he hankered for change–not career change but switching to another discipline in psychology. Ottenstein found a novel niche: He became a specialist in crisis management and bank robbery training and intervention.

His current operation includes a staff of professionals who are prepared to leave home base on an hour’s notice. Although he travels mostly by car, he has a private plane accessible 20 minutes from his office. He covers the mid-Atlantic region and has attended to to tellers and other employees at hundreds of bank robberies.

Last year, Ottenstein built a mock bank in Eldersberg, MD, where bank tellers, security guards and other bank officials receive robbery survival training, acknowledging that bank robberies may vary from the passing of a robber’s note to bloodshed. Ottenstein has also co-authored “The Armed Robbery Training Model for Security Specialists,” used in police academies and other law enforcement training centers.

His company, Workplace Trauma Center, does not provide full Employee Assistance Program (EAP) services which would include assessment and therapeutic services. He specializes in trauma response and crisis management which includes disaster relief and training. Ottenstein and his staff were at the World Center and Pentagon in September. While he assisted workers at Ground Zero, most of his staff members were sent to corporations that had been impacted by losses of personnel at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Ottenstein’s interest in bank robbery consultation started 15 years ago when a friend who operated an EAP asked him to assist in employee support following bank robberies. He agreed, his first task being to lay out basic protocols for group intervention to support employees. He found it rewarding and became increasingly interested in psychological trauma and early intervention, taking additional training in specialized techniques useful through the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation.

Ottenstein said, “word spread in the professional community that I was available to do this kind of work.” Other clinicians in his practice, Counseling Centers of Maryland, also became interested and a team was formed. He started a second practice, called the Workplace Trauma Center, focusing on critical incident services for business and industry and preventative training programs such as workplace violence prevention training and the bank robbery training. While bank robbery consulting continues as the nucleus of his practice, Ottenstein says he is regularly called by companies to handle workplace violence, attempted shootings, natural deaths at worksites, industrial accidents, suicides, disasters and even the problems of companies downsizing which may augur violent reactions.

There is no time to be wasted when the bank robbery alarm rings. Ottenstein, his professional and office staffs are trained in triaging what will be needed even while the team is en route to the bank robbery whether by car or plane. Time is essential.

First, preparatory steps are dealt with–names, telephone numbers of contact persons at the bank site, estimated time of arrival, arrangements where and with whom to meet on arrival, an outline of the conditions at the bank, whether the psychologists will be dealing with injuries and bloodshed. The psychologist tries to be informed on conditions at the bank and will seek to give simple advice, such as drinking water and orange juice, avoiding caffeine.

On arrival, the psychologist meets briefly with the bank’s management team or security personnel to obtain background information, thus beginning steps to work out the most appropriate intervention strategies.

“There are more than half dozen approaches from crisis intervention to crisis management,” Ottenstein said. “There are steps in dealing with a large group of people who are traumatized, in preventing rumors, giving accurate information on traumatic stress.”

Psychotherapy is not a part of the picture during the initial critical incident response. “It would make things worse,” Ottenstein said. “It would be more than the victims can cope with.” However, he encourages referral for psychotherapeutic follow-up for individuals having difficulty recovering from the initial post-traumatic stress.

While there are no hardcore statistics, Ottenstein said about 80% of the employees at bank robberies report that psychological intervention was helpful. “They feel it gave them a sense of support, that it helped them cope with what they were going through.” Studies of costs related to sick leave, absenteeism and workers compensation claims have shown significant decrease in costs when critical incident services have been provided, according to Ottenstein.

Victims of bank robberies react in different ways. “Often, people fear their own reactions which may be intrusive memories, nightmares, can’t stop crying, feeling angry and depressed,” according to Ottenstein. “These are normal reactions but people don’t recognize them as normal and we must help them find ways to cope with them.”

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Richard J. Ottenstein, Ph.D. of Owings Mills, MD. can be reached at RJO@WORKPLACETRAUMACENTER.com

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