By Audrey Fraizer
Employment and stress are something of a “Catch-22” in emergency communications.
To hire dispatchers and calltakers able to handle a constant stream of unpleasant and stressful situations, you want to know how an individual might cope in these types of situations. But in order to recognize the individual’s ability to handle these types of emergencies, there must be situations to test the individual’s ability to do so.
And the last thing you want to do is expose an employee to an event that could spark a potentially life-altering condition leading to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“Stress has always been here in emergency communications,” said James Lake, Director, Charleston County Consolidated 911 Center in South Carolina. “But in the last five to seven years, we’ve realized the events heard over the phone could be as bad as seeing the incident, and we don’t want to put a person in a triggering event.”
PTSD develops in some people involved directly or indirectly to a traumatizing event. People with PTSD may feel stressed even when not exposed to a threatening event.1
Studies have shown that emergency calls involving children are particularly difficult as well as calls where emergency dispatchers hear someone die, whether it is from injuries or suicide. The on-duty death of a responder is also difficult to block out.
“It’s not so easy to shake some of the calls,” Lake said.
The triggering event isn’t always predictable, and there’s a host of possibilities represented by the Academy’s fire, police, and medical Chief Complaints. The event could be personal, such as a family history of domestic violence that triggers a bad reaction from a call involving a spouse physically or verbally abusing the other spouse. It also could be an event that occurred at a former job in emergency communications.
One call could tip the balance when combined with personal unresolved grief or it could be the constant stream of negative calls mixed with long hours, fatigue, and—without Dispatch Life Support—the inability to influence the outcome of an incident.
“It’s different for everyone,” Lake said. “I know what dispatchers go through and everybody reacts differently. Symptoms are not always the same.”
The onset of symptoms also varies from within several weeks of the incident, to months and years afterward.2 Considering the lag time, an individual might not recognize the symptoms—depression, difficulty sleeping, and dulled emotions, for example—and, in the hiring process, the applicant does not acknowledge the potential of experiencing a stress-induced reaction.
If and when a reaction does happen, there’s no going back to the source. A calltaker or dispatcher might recognize events from the past instrumental to a present reaction, but the fault lies in the current position.
“The call or event might have occurred somewhere else, but the responsibility lies with the place where the response to stress occurred,” Lake said.
Lake has seen the effects of overload and stress on personnel during his 30 years in emergency communications. He knows the havoc that untreated stress can play on a person’s life, and he understands the hesitancy of 911 personnel to admit there is a problem.
“Often, telecommunicators perceive admitting they need help as a sign of weakness when in fact admitting there is a problem and allowing someone to help takes a great deal of strength,” he said.
He also knows he cannot base hiring on perceptions of an applicant or a known incident that caused the applicant stress in the past. Not only would that be the wrong thing to do, Lake said, but there are also protections in place to keep that from happening.
An employee diagnosed with PTSD is protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Lake said, and, consequently, preserves the individual’s right to stay employed at the communication center through the ADA’s reasonable accommodations provision. For example, a person experiencing trauma induced at a calltaking position could accept a career transfer to radio dispatch. Other options to treat PTSD include training on how to manage stress, utilizing employee assistance programs, and the opportunity to meet with a chaplain or other counselor skilled in helping individuals work through trauma.
“The end goal is to get people the appropriate help,” Lake said. “We’re trying to take care of our people, but, at the same time, they have to find ways to take care of themselves.”
1 “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.” National Institutes of Health. National Institute of Mental Health. 2016; February. http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd/index.shtml (accessed March 28, 2016).
2 See note 1.