Stressors in Emergency Dispatching: A Personal and Analytical Insight
A guest blog by: Lloyd R. Brownell and Kristen Olaes of Dispatch Monkey
The last few months of 2016, presented itself as a watershed moment in the world of Emergency Dispatch, within the United States. Americans and in fact, the world, had begun to realize that Emergency Dispatchers truly are, “The most important person that you will never see.” This was due in no small part, to APCO International and NENA pushing for the reclassification of emergency dispatchers from the “clerical” class to “protective”, before the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the #IAM911 Movement.
My name is Lloyd. I came into Emergency Dispatching at 31 years old, after being a long haul truck driver for over 8 years. In 2005, I made the decision that I needed a career change that had me at home daily with my family. Since my father had been a police officer for 27 years and I still had the desire to follow in his footsteps, I decided to start my own policing career in dispatch. I did this with the intention of applying as an officer in the future. However, through a combination of circumstances, I chose to stay in dispatch and I’ve been here for the last eleven and a half years. I still enjoy my chosen career, but it hasn’t been without its share of disillusionment and stress. Over the course of my career, the organizational & operational stressors have affected me mentally & physically.
Organizational stress was more of an issue for me on a personal level very early in my career. Without sharing too many details, I found myself in the crosshairs of a supervisor (who has since retired). I feel to this day, that this supervisor wanted me out and for reasons that I will likely never know. Thankfully, my direct watch supervisor took me under her wing. She encouraged me and built me up, helping me to gain confidence and mold me into the operator that I am today. I will forever be grateful to her for believing in me. Sadly, she passed away approximately two years ago, after retiring approximately two years earlier.
During the middle years of my career, the organizational stressors were less on the personal level, but affecting the unit as a whole. Our center went through an extreme short staffing issue for about two years. During this time we were working so understaffed, that we were “voluntold” into working overtime. As well, our summer vacation leave was severely limited, with only one person per watch allowed leave for each shift set. Further to that, only a maximum of two blocks off between May and September were allowed. This led to senior operators grabbing dates first, with the junior operators left taking the bottom of the barrel leave choices, which caused hard feelings for many. Fortunately, in the last few years we have gained more staff, resulting in no more “voluntold” overtime and a better leave situation; however we do remain understaffed.
The operational stressors of this job have taken a toll on me as well. In 2013, I experienced a very traumatic call, after which I was medically off duty for a few months. I went to see a psychologist at a clinic specializing in operational stress injuries. When the treatment was concluded after three months, I returned back to work. I had felt that the trauma had been dealt with and that I had the adequate “tools in my toolbox”, to deal with future traumatic events and critical incidents. I continued cruising along, thinking that I was doing well and initially I was; however with continued exposure to traumatic events, I began to wear down again. My sleep was affected and I was constantly tired. I was feeling physically, mentally and emotionally drained. I had given up on trying to eat well and stopped exercising completely. I became irritable, grouchy, disconnected, distant and hypervigilant, which affected my work and home life.
Then late in 2015, there was another critical incident. It was an Amber Alert situation that my watch had been dealing with for three shifts. Unfortunately, it did not end the way that we had hoped for. My watch was on when the news came that the child was found deceased. That shift, I was tasked with working our officer support desk and as such, I was dealing directly with the officers there on the ground investigating and performing various support duties. I believe that I performed well during the shift, as I was intently focused, but once the shift was over, the gravity of it all hit me hard. I went home, broke down and cried. The following days were tough for me, so I held on tightly to my little ones and prayed.
A few days later, the police psychologist came in to specifically debrief our watch and the watch on the opposite shift as us. It so happened that I was the only one who attended, which allowed for me to have one-on-one time with the doctor. During the session, she recommended that I go back to the see the psychologist at the operational stress injury clinic. I went there in December 2015 and I was diagnosed with moderate PTSD, with comorbidities of depression and anxiety. I have been in therapy since then and so far I have been having success. In the late spring of 2016, my sleep issues had not yet resolved, so I was placed off duty for a four week period to deal with them; however I have remained on duty for the majority of the time since my diagnosis.
Shiny Happy People:
A few days ago a shiny, happy new crop of trainees came onto the floor of our center, for their introductory tour. I couldn’t help noticing how their faces showed a combination of awe & wonder, along with the familiar, “deer in the headlights” and “What the heck am I doing?” looks. They were all trying to keep on a smile, but underneath I am sure that they were worried and scared to death. I know that they were feeling this, because nearly 12 years ago that was me.
New dispatch trainees remind me of the song by R.E.M, “Shiny Happy People”. This is an overly upbeat, bubble-gum type of pop song (incidentally, R.E.M. regrets recording it), which on the surface appears to be about the happy people holding onto what makes them happy. However, this song is actually about people putting on a happy face, a façade if you will, even though they may not be.
“Meet me in the crowd, people, people
Throw your love around, love me, love me
Take it into town, happy, happy
Put it in the ground where the flowers grow
Gold and silver shine
Shiny happy people holding hands
Shiny happy people holding hands
Shiny happy people laughing” (Bill Berry, 1991)
Now, I’m not saying that the trainees aren’t happy, but they do have a myriad of other feelings and they’re trying their best to keep a positive appearance and outlook.
Somewhere along the course of our careers, with the combination of operational and organizational stressors, many dispatchers lose the desire to appear happy. In fact, some are so unhappy, that it no longer matters to them that they aren’t putting on the façade. This happens, because dispatching is a job in which we pour so much of ourselves, with very little coming back in return. This wears Emergency Dispatchers down little by little, until they resemble the subject in another song by R.E.M., “Losing My Religion”.
Of every waking hour
I’m choosing my confessions
Trying to keep an eye on you
Like a hurt lost and blinded fool
Oh no, I’ve said too much
I set it up” (Bill Berry, 1991)
Operational & Organizational Stress:
My name is Kristen. Sometimes, the hardest part about doing the job we do is remembering that we actually have great lives and are grateful for all we have; friends, family, a roof over our heads, food on our table and the incredible opportunity to make the life of one person a little bit better each day. Why do we forget this?? Because we’re tired. We get tired of dealing with staff shortages, office politics. We get exhausted from working longs shifts that also prevent us from spending time with loved ones. Then, we become too tired to take care of ourselves and we get burned out. A common term bandied about is “compassion fatigue”. All this means is that we have been feeling stressed for too long and we haven’t been able to do the self-care needed to ensure that we are healthy. In trying to write this article, I was looking for studies (related to our industry) that studied the effects of stress, both operational and organizational, and was saddened to discover very few articles. I did, however, find a couple of survey-based studies that give a fair and comprehensive look at what kinds of stress we experience, and how we are affected by that stress. So in that light, I want to say that this is a bit of a read, but well worth it as it may put into clear terms what some of you may already be feeling but unable to express. So here goes….
In a survey study done by Bradley J Flanagan in 2013, published by APCO International, Flanagan compiled the rankings of 20 (twenty) organizational stressors and 20 (twenty) operational stressors as determined by participants of the survey. Based on the responses of the participants, the top five stressors for both categories, listed from most to least, are:
- Organizational: staff shortages, inconsistent leadership styles, dealing with co-workers, the feeling that different rules apply to different people, bureaucratic red tape
- Operational: fatigue, finding time to stay in good physical shape, shift work, not enough time to stay in good shape, traumatic events.
I find it interesting that it isn’t traumatic events that stress us out the most, but leadership, staffing, interpersonal conflict and the fact that we are too tired, or don’t have enough time, to do the things that help us feel better!!! It’s the classic ‘catch 22’ situation. We are burning out because of perceived stress from the job and leadership, but we feel like leadership is part of the problem. We are too busy working due to staffing issues to try to take the breaks we need…but we have no control over staffing! No wonder we are tired! We don’t feel like we have support and we feel like we can’t support ourselves because we have to “do more with less”.
In another more recent, and more comprehensive, study done by Kimberly D. Turner for the San Jose State University in 2015, a survey was completed that examined the contributing factors to, and effects of, stress. One limitation she did identify was that this survey involved only one police force so the results are not representative of a cross-cut of the industry.
The variables looked at in the study are: if there is a healthy work-life balance, whether there is a good support system in place, whether one feels fairly treated and whether an employee feels like they have a say in their work environment. These variables contribute to the level of perceived stress as well as physiological and psychological effects. The results of each of the independent variables are discussed in the paper, but I am more focussed on the overall impression of our well-being when looking at the effects of our career, so I will speak to the how we feel stress, and how it affects us physically and psychologically.
With regard to perceived stress levels, what the survey showed was that the majority of people asked said that they experienced some sort of stress “sometimes”. The top three concerns identified, with the frequency ranging from ‘sometimes’ to ‘fairly often’ to ‘very often’, were:
- Felt nervous and stressed – 96.6% of the participants
- Been upset because of something that happened unexpectedly – 83.2% of the participants
- Been angered because of things that were outside of your control – 76.1% of the participants
Second, they looked at how perceived stress affected the participants physiologically (e.g. pain). The top three complaints identified, with a frequency ranging from ‘sometimes’ to ‘fairly often’ to ‘very often’, were:
- Insomnia or trouble sleeping – 80.2% of the participants
- Difficulty remembering common names/place – 65.2% of the participants
- Lower back pain – 45.9% of the participants
Thirdly, they looked at how perceived stress affected the participants psychologically (e.g. nervous). The top four emotions identified, with a frequency ranging from ‘moderately’ to ‘quite a bit’ to ‘extremely’, were:
- Attentive & Alert – almost a tie with 83.8% and 83.7% (respectively) of participants reported feeling this
- Determined – 75.6% of participants reported feeling this
- Active – 70.1% of participants reported feeling this
Conversely, the three emotions least felt by participants, with a frequency ranging from ‘moderately’ to ‘quite a bit’ to ‘extremely’, were:
- Ashamed – 14.8% of the participants reported feeling this
- Hostile – 24.4% of the participants reported feeling this
- Inspired – 37.9% of the participants reported feeling this
What these three snapshots tell me, is that almost 100% of us feel stress at some point, that 8 out of 10 of us have had trouble sleeping, and about half of us deal with foggy brain and/or pain. But, and this is the good part, we still remain attentive and alert at work (if not determined), very few of us are ashamed of ourselves, and sometimes we even feel inspired. I’d say that we are a pretty resilient group of people!
In the study’s conclusion, and I am paraphrasing here, they suggest that when there is work-life balance staff displays fewer effects of stress. They also say that staff is happier when they feel satisfied with equitable treatment in the workplace and when they feel they have some control over their environment.
So what does all this mean? As an industry, we need to do better; we need to figure out a way to remove some of the perceived stress. As employees, we need to take responsibility for ensuring we have good support systems in place, and we do our best to keep work at work and have a relaxing and fulfilling home life. For managers, this means that you need to ensure that your staff feels like they are treated fairly, that they feel they have the support of their chain of command, and to mitigate any issues with work-related demands (i.e. overtime, staff shortages). What we all need to remember is that when we, as employees, feel appreciated, satisfied, fulfilled and are able to enjoy our time off we are more likely to be loyal to the organization and be retained as employees.
The big picture
Through our personal stories and stats researched, you can see that Emergency Dispatchers do not fit into the “Office and Administrative Support Occupations” clerical classification. Police, Fire and Ambulance dispatchers should be a part of the “Protective Service Occupations” classification. We deal with real life & death emergencies, influencing investigations and calls for service 24/7/365 and we do it with the utmost professionalism and respect. Please continue to support the initiative by APCO and NENA. Most of all, please continue to share your #IAM911 stories. Contact your local representatives in the Senate and Congress. Tell them that Emergency Dispatchers are an important lifeline to the public, police, fire & medics and that they deserve to have the recognition that is long overdue. Make sure to thank an Emergency Dispatcher and join the movement.
A special “Thank you” goes out to Ricardo Martinez host of the “Within the Trenches Podcast”, who jumped on board to assist with the reclassification push and started the #IAM911 movement, along with the “Day 1” supporters who helped spread the word. These folks include Ryan Dedmon (Operation 10-8, 911 Training Institute), Adam Timm (The Healthy Dispatcher), Manny Apostol (Public Safety Dispatchers and Friends), Tom Margetta (Cool Kids of 9-1-1, 911 CEU) and myself (Dispatch Monkey).