FEATURED IN LEADERSHIP
It was about this time last year when I wrote about Critical Incident Stress Management for telecommunicators. It was in response to a sudden increase in line-of-duty deaths, including the murder of a dispatcher during the holidays. I urged telecommunicators to seek help if they needed it. I reflected that telecommunicators are often forgotten during times of difficult or particularly stressful calls. I talked about how the bad guys nowadays aren’t running from us but turning to fight/fire instead. If you've been paying any attention to the headlines, it seems like it’s happening all over again. Except this time, they are now what I can only describe as “hunting us.” Colorado, Texas and West Virginia are the latest with victims. They have suffered losses of some high-ranking public officials, some in the “safety” of their own homes. I have no words to describe how I feel about these crimes.
I have a good friend who is a chief of police in Colorado. My thoughts immediately went out to him and his family. Brian moved out to Colorado from Ft. Myers after his retirement as a lieutenant. He and his officer-wife-turned stay-at-home mom, Lisa, took their children to what I'm sure they thought would be a slower paced and safer environment. I sent him a message, urging him to make sure Lisa keeps going to the range. (He assured me that yes, she most certainly keeps up on her all her LEO skills.)
So far my husband and I haven't had any problems running into his past “customers” on the outside. But you never know how doing your job is going to affect someone with a criminal mind. Are they off their meds? Have they been drinking? Do they perceive you as a threat because of an encounter you had with them in the past while just doing your everyday duties? I once had a man call the center and threaten to kill me after I called his wife for her to pick him up from a local bar after an altercation with management. I guess he got an earful from his wife at 3 in the morning when a “girl named Cindy” woke her up to pick her drunken husband. I had someone escort me to my car that morning. It was a little unnerving. I can’t imagine what people in the field feel when they are off duty and with their spouses and/or families and run into someone they have “done business” with.
When I think about how these types of incidents affect my public safety family, it just turns my stomach into knots. Having to be on constant alert for your personal safety while on duty is bad enough, but this takes hyper-vigilance to an all new level. During times like these, everyone’s stress level becomes elevated.
I have noticed a lot of conversation lately in the social media and in the public safety industry about accumulative stress in telecommunicators. There has been a rash of new Facebook pages dedicated to the public safety dispatcher, as well as police/EMT/fire personnel lately. I enjoy keeping up with the family around the country. We all seem to share the same trials and tribulations no matter where our headquarters are based. The one thing that I have noticed over and over again on all the pages is folks reaching out for help for burnout and stress. What I find most disturbing is that some agencies still do not address this topic at all. The fact that these people have to ask for help and direction while remaining anonymous shows that there is still a taboo about the subject. If we aren't allowed to work through our anxieties and stress it will only accumulate to dangerous levels. Cumulative stress can affect your work performance, your attendance, your personal relationships and your social life, not to mention the physical manifestations that can occur. Your mental health is so important. It saddens me that there is still a stigma attached to someone seeking help. We will all need some form of help in some point in our career.
There are finally reports and studies being published on the effects of stress on the telecommunicator. There is a particularly interesting paper that was published recently in the Journal of Traumatic Stress on April 25, 2012. It points out: “The results suggest that 911 telecommunicators are exposed to duty-related trauma that may lead to the development of PTSD, and that direct, physical exposure to trauma may not be necessary to increase risk for PTSD in this population.”
Public Safety Stress
One of the problems that plague our industry is high turnover. No matter where I travel to teach, I meet telecommunicators, supervisors and managers who state one of the biggest problems is keeping a full staff. Imagine, our chosen career is and can become extremely stressful even before we even answer the first phone call, or dispatch the first incident. Shift work, length of shift hours, mandatory overtime, poor working environment, lack of adequate compensation, wages and recognition, the internal “us-vs.-them” mentality, and simply missing major family events, all add up to a stressful working environment, etc. Throw in constant exposure to duty-related trauma. The 9-1-1 telecommunicator is trained and expected to handle all of this with calm professionalism when all is falling apart around the emotional and distraught caller.