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.
I am willing to bet that the majority of people who leave the field is probably not going to list stress as a reason for leaving. I have only had one person admit to me, within a couple of weeks of training, that they were too overwhelmed with the job. She admitted that the stress of being responsible for other people’s personal safety was too much for her, and she resigned. I respected her so much for recognizing this on her own. Other than this wise and conscientious person, all the others who didn’t make it had to have “help” to realize this wasn’t the job for them.
If we aren’t comfortable admitting that we might need a little help now and again shaking off that “one call” or incident, then of course it’s going to accumulate and become a problem later on. We all know it. Our job is as difficult and demanding as it is challenging and rewarding. If we can’t depend on each other or our management to help us through these times, they should expect to eventually lose people. Whether it be through their own accord or worse, a tragic error, if we aren’t able to get assistance within our own agency we certainly aren’t going to admit we have a problem in fear of becoming labeled. We will suffer in silence and trudge on.
What Can You Do?
If you're management, please watch over you people. If you don’t already have a program in place for CISM, find one! There are multiple resources out there for you. Make sure that your folks are included in Critical Incident Debriefings. They are an important part of the puzzle, and they need to be a part of the whole picture. Getting the whole story and/or sometimes just seeing or talking to the field unit after a stressful call might be all they need to release some of their anxiety. Allow them a break after a particularly bad call before they move on to the next emergency. If nothing else reach out to them and make sure they're OK. Not all calls are “trigger” calls for us. But just knowing that management cares is sometimes enough to make us feel better. And they should feel comfortable in knowing that going to a CISD debriefing is confidential and not a review of operational duties. What they're going through is NORMAL.
If you're a co-worker, look out for each other. Remember: What seems routine to you may have a certain detail that may mean something to someone else. Everyone has different ways of dealing with stress and anxiety and not everyone reacts the same way. The next call might be the one that affects you. Don’t make them feel ashamed or inadequate for seeking assistance. You would want the same courtesy and respect should you need it someday.
I leave you administrators with a final thought: Why spend so much time, energy, money and resources to train your most valuable asset, your personnel, if you aren't going to help keep them mentally healthy as well? So is there a correlation between turnover and stress management? I suggest there just might be. Everyone has a breaking point.
I am a peer on the Tri-County Critical Incident Stress Management Team here in Lee County. I participate in defusings and debriefings in order to help my work family feel normal in dealing with the abnormal. We're a special breed—only a public safety worker can possibly know what it’s like to be us and have to deal with the things that only we deal with on a daily basis. Who else is going to look out for us? We serve those who serve with pride.
Below I've listed some resources available to you if you don't already have a CISD program in place in your jurisdiction. You'll want to make sure that the program you pick is tailored to meet the needs of public safety professionals. We utilize the Jeffery Mitchell model here in Lee County and have had great success with it in the 25 years we have been operating.
Stay safe and be well, my family.