By Josh McFadden
When it comes to stressful jobs, being an emergency dispatcher has to be near the top of the list. While many jobs bring with them stressful situations that include deadlines, complicated problems, heavy burdens, and fiscal responsibility, few literally deal with life and death—multiple times throughout each day.
And it happens call after call.
Fortunately, many centers around the world are doing something to help staff members deal with and overcome the relentless onslaught of stress.
Peer Support Program
The staff at SA Ambulance Service (SAAS) in Adelaide, Australia, are serious about helping dispatchers cope with stress. Staff members volunteer to participate on the center’s Peer Support Program, which helps mitigate stressful situations for fellow employees. Volunteers are trained on how to best help those in need. Program Development Manager Liz Charles explained how this program functions.
“When an event has the potential to be stressful (personal or work related), staff are proactively contacted and provided support at an appropriate level determined at the time,” Charles said. “It may be just a phone call, coffee catch-up, further catch-ups, or nothing required. If the event is deemed extra difficult, we will bring in professional psychologists to support the staff as needed.”
SAAS works with four psychologists and a chaplain to address and assess issues staff members are having. The center also provides phone numbers and websites of various additional resources that employees may contact to discuss challenges they’re facing or to simply find someone with a listening ear.
Supervisors or managers may suggest the program to staff members as a way to help them through their stress, or staff members can take their own initiative.
“If staff are having personal issues, they are able to self-refer to the support program and gain direct access to psychologists to help them in their lives,” Charles said.
Employee Assistance Program
Stress management and stress coping are also important topics at Dane County Public Safety Communications in Madison, Wis. The department understands that stress is a part of the job and that staff members do respond to incidents that cause psychological distress or emotional strain. The center has instituted an Employee Assistance Program to help victims recognize such events and for colleagues to know how to react to the person having the issue. This program is available to staff members 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year and covers stressful, traumatic situations including:
• Serious injury or death of any on-duty Public Safety Communications member
• Serious injury or death of a fellow employee
• Suicide or homicide of an employee
• Any incident that can be considered a serious physical or psychological threat to an employee in the line of duty
• Loss of life that follows extraordinary and prolonged expenditures or physical or emotional energy in a rescue attempt
• A series of incidents that may have cumulative effects
• An incident with unusual circumstances that produces immediate or delayed emotional reactions that surpasses normal coping mechanisms
A couple of recent events in the lives of Dane County dispatchers underscore how helpful the program has been.
“A few years ago we had a dispatcher who had suffered a miscarriage,” said Dane County Public Safety Communications Operations Manager Paul Logan. “Obviously, this was a terrible situation with a lot of associated stress as part of the grieving process. Subsequent to this episode, this same employee answered a 911 call from a mother experiencing a similar situation, and this ‘landmine’ triggered many of the past emotions and caused a fairly significant stress reaction.”
Through the program, the employee was able to take steps to help her appropriately handle future calls that would be similar to this one.
“We pride ourselves on providing resources for our employees,” Logan said.
In December 2015, the center dealt with the tragedy of a police officer line of duty death. In just over two hours after the incident, Dane County jumped into action by providing a crisis counselor in the comm. center. The counselor was on hand to visit one-on-one with any staff member who needed to talk, whether or not that person was directly involved with the event. It was a completely voluntary activity.
Later that evening a Critical Incident Stress debriefing session was held for all police, fire, EMS responders, and dispatchers who needed extra help dealing with the tragedy. Meetings such as these are held to facilitate closure and reconstruction and to allow discussion among participants in an effort to cope with the stress brought on by the event, Logan said.
Don’t lose hope
Every person is different, and every incident affects people differently. While one dispatcher may be able to shrug off one dramatic call and move on without ill effects, another dispatcher may be rendered incapable of performing his or her regular duties.
No one in this profession is immune to stress, and there is no shame in requesting help. If you find yourself feeling a greater amount of stress than usual, or if you are experiencing adverse physical, emotional, or psychological symptoms, speak to a member of your center’s management team and start the healing process.