By Josh McFadden
Stressful situations, high-pressure phone calls, long and grueling shifts: Welcome to the life of a 9-1-1 dispatcher.
Nobody ever said the job of a dispatcher is easy. Truly, to be successful in this critically important role requires cool nerves, crisis management, leadership, and the ability to perform under the most adverse conditions. Certainly, there are good days and bad days—as with any job—but the fact remains that this profession can take a toll on its employees.
Dispatchers are fighting for their health
Even the most skillful and experienced dispatchers can struggle with the never-ending volume of emergency calls, some of which involve traumatic events such as homicides, suicides, kidnappings, or far-reaching and widespread disasters. Once one call is over, it’s on to the next. One after another, they come.
In March 2012, Northern Illinois University psychology professor Michelle Lilly co-authored a study in the Journal of Traumatic Stress that explored the potential health hazards dispatchers face in their everyday work. The study, which involved 171 dispatchers from 24 states, showed that all respondents had “one or two symptoms” of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and that 3.5 percent of those sampled “had symptoms serious enough to qualify for a full PTSD diagnosis.”1
In 2012, retired police officer and emergency dispatcher Paul D. Bagley wrote for 9-1-1 Magazine on the subject of dispatcher health. He said in his decades of experience in the industry, the three most common medical complaints he heard from dispatchers were diabetes, depression, and heart disease.2 Bagley said in his observations, the “vast majority” of emergency dispatchers at one time suffer from one of these conditions or from a combination of them.
Of course, not everyone who deals with stress at work or at home manifests these conditions. Many, dispatchers included, who encounter stressful situations learn how to manage stress and learn to implement healthy habits in their lives to ward off these potentially harmful side effects.
Comm. center managers around the world recognizing the damage stress and trauma can do to their dispatchers have taken measures to ensure their workforce is properly equipped to ward off the effects of difficult 9-1-1 calls. One of the answers may be simpler than one would think: get healthy.
Walk while you work
Two comm. centers in California found a unique way to achieve better health on the job for their dispatchers. The Santa Clara Police Department and the Sunnyvale Department of Public Safety installed treadmills in dispatchers’ workstations, allowing these hard-working men and women to burn off calories and stress while they take calls.
“We saw on social media that Johnson County in Kansas had put treadmills in their control center in January 2014,” said Michael Spath, Communications Manager at Sunnyvale DPS. “It moved along slowly, but we got things going in May (2014). It’s a new type of multitasking.”
Sunnyvale DPS has one treadmill at its center. Here, dispatchers are allowed to walk on the machine as they take calls and go through the protocols. There is also an exercise bike that can be moved and taken to any workstation. Dispatchers can generally take all the time they’d like on the machines; they’re not required to use them.
“The rules are be safe and play nice and share,” Spath said.
In October 2014, nearby Santa Clara followed suit and installed a treadmill at one of its workstations.
“I saw Mike’s center and liked it,” said Judi Dziuba, Communication Operations Manager, Santa Clara PD. “Everyone is behind it. Santa Clara is into wellness and health of employees. Dispatchers are multitaskers by nature; it was seamless for them.”
This past December, the two neighboring centers had a friendly mileage competition, with Santa Clara emerging as the winner in the most miles logged by employees. Together, Santa Clara and Sunnyvale dispatchers walked 900 miles. One dispatcher walked a full marathon—26.2 miles—during a single shift. It took her seven hours.
“I consider us both winners,” Dziuba said. “It has built a relationship between the two centers.”
Both Spath and Dziuba give glowing reviews of the innovative workstations, saying that both employee health and productivity have improved.
“Research shows that people in sedentary jobs run a higher risk of sickness and disease,” Dziuba said. “If I can give them the option to walk 15 to 20 minutes, we’re all happy. We saw attitude changes. Dispatchers are able to de-stress and still be more productive. They are happy to come to work. Using the treadmill builds team camaraderie.”
Spath echoed the positive findings.
“There are a lot more positive, constructive attitudes,” Spath said. “Dispatchers go through monotony, punctuated by ‘hot calls.’ Having something to do breaks the monotony.”
As a Communication Center Manager (CCM) course graduate, Spath has learned that people matter the most in a comm. center. Anytime a manager can introduce a way to improve employee productivity and health, the dividends can be enormous.
“Using the treadmill workstations was a no-brainer,” he said. “It set us up for success.”
Dziuba echoes these sentiments and recognizes the value of her team.
“People are our No. 1 asset,” she said. “We need to invest in our people before ourselves.”
The running man
Not far from Sunnyvale and Santa Clara is the San Jose Fire Department where Senior Dispatcher Rahul Maharaj is taking people from the couch to the finish line. Whether a dispatcher wants to run a 3.1-mile (5K) race or a 26.2-mile marathon, or even participate in a triathlon or Ironman event, Maharaj is happy to get them there.
With 13 years of experience in the 9-1-1 field, Maharaj understands well the nature of the job: long hours of taking emotion-filled calls, fatigue, and burnout. Only seven years ago, he weighed 300 pounds, was always tired, and could barely walk up a flight of stairs.
“I started getting active,” he said. “I started with a mile here and there. By 2011, I did my first half-marathon and was hooked.”
Last year, Maharaj and his friend and fellow dispatcher Jamey Slaton participated in an Ironman competition in Arizona. The ultimate test of fitness and endurance consisted of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2-mile run. Maharaj completed the course in 16 hours.
But his greatest joys are seeing previously inactive dispatchers make exercise an irreplaceable part of their lives.
Maharaj has spearheaded an effort to get people at his center healthier and more active. Whether a team member wants to prepare to run in an organized race or if someone simply wants to get in shape, he or she can participate in a training regimen to help meet these goals. As of mid-March, 10 of the center’s 40 people were involved in the program.
“If you want to do a 5K or a 10K (6.2-mile), we can show you how to do it without getting hurt,” Maharaj said. “We tailor and cater to a person’s ability and experience. People are loving it. They’re buying into it and enjoying it. They see the benefit and value of being active.”
Maharaj said he notices a significant difference between those who participate in the running program and those who don’t.
“Attitude and morale are a little higher,” he said. “It gives them an avenue to relieve stress. I can see a difference in demeanor. People come in with more energy. It kind of snowballs into being more efficient.”
In addition, the comm. center houses a gym with stair climbers and elliptical machines, and workstations can be equipped with exercise balls instead of chairs. The center’s rooftop has a garden where employees can grow fresh fruits and vegetables. All of this has led to a change in attitude, lifestyle, and the overall feeling of wellness for those involved in the staff’s training program.
What’s in it for the team? Not all natural-born athletes, staff members love accomplishing things they never dreamed possible.
“I do this to watch people go from something they hadn’t done before to doing amazing things,” Maharaj said. “The feeling you get crossing the finish line after putting in years of hard work is indescribable.”
Maharaj acknowledged that not everyone is going to catch the running bug. For those looking for alternative ways to exercise, he encourages them to hit the gym and lift weights. Either way, this dedicated leader is helping to change lives and improve his workforce.
It is true that dispatchers have a largely sedentary job. It is not uncommon to work a 12-hour shift where one is mostly confined to a desk while on the phone and computer. Over time, the lack of physical activity builds up, and soon, a person can easily become tired and lethargic.
A lack of regular physical activity can also lead to a tendency to eat poorly. Add to that a dispatcher’s busy, stressful job and many dispatchers find themselves enticed by fast food and unhealthy snacks to munch on throughout the day. For these reasons, one agency in Canada has given dispatchers healthier options when choosing things to eat.
The Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service (WFPS) in Winnipeg, Manitoba, has an on-site convenience store that sells granola bars, varieties of nuts and fruit bars, and alternatives to the traditional vending machine candy bars and potato chips.
The WFPS also shares a workout area and gym with the Winnipeg Police Service Communications Center. Staff members from both agencies are free to use the facility during work breaks or on days off. Staff members are known to wage friendly competitions such as marathons.
“Affording employees with the opportunity to de-stress and exercise has proven beneficial for everyone,” said Tammy Jewell, WFPS QI/Training Specialist. “Employees are less tired from sitting for 12 hours and use the facilities to exercise with co-workers, which fosters a more cohesive working relationship.”
Jewell said the center uses ergonomic workstations with height adjustable desks to accommodate users’ preferences. Staff members can use an exercise ball and a kneeling chair. They also have access to a city-owned facility complete with a weight room, swimming pool, and walking/running track. Staff is commonly seen walking and biking along the city park’s path during breaks.
At Gallatin County 911 in Bozeman, Mont., dispatchers have similar opportunities to stay active at work. As Trainer/Supervisor John Hinkle said, the center itself does not have a gym, though it is adjacent to the town’s new fire station, which does have a fitness facility. Dispatchers are allowed to use the gym whenever they like. Gallatin County 911 also has a “quiet room” where dispatchers take their breaks. In this room, employees like to play Nintendo Wii games and put on workout videos.
Though employees aren’t allowed to stray too far for lunch breaks, Hinkle said many dispatchers frequent a nearby park to walk and enjoy the fresh air.
But break times aren’t the only opportunities for Gallatin County 911 dispatchers to unwind. All consoles raise up to a standing position, and some dispatchers bring in portable stair steppers to use while working. Each workstation computer also has a link to yoga routines that anyone can do right at their desk.
Getting fit around the globe
Job stress isn’t just a concern for dispatchers and comm. centers in North America. It’s an issue centers across the world are tackling. A comm. center in Australia has taken measures to help improve mental health.
South Australian Ambulance Service (SAAS), with the Government of South Australia, has developed a Peer Support program for its staff members. In this program, all EMDs receive personal contact after particularly emotional calls to ensure they are doing all right. EMDs and their families also have access to clinical psychologists for up to four free visits annually.
“The program has been embraced by staff, as it extends to life outside of work, which can have a huge impact on work productivity,” said Liz Charles, Program Development Manager, SAAS. “This initiative is also included during training for EMD staff to help them build emotional resilience and better prepare them for the role.”
SAAS also offers EMDs SAASFit, a program aimed at general physical health and well-being and used to encourage an active lifestyle. SAASFit provides steppers, stationary bikes, and exercise balls for EMDs to use in the center. The program covers fees to enter physical activities such as races and fun runs. Through the program, staff members can work one on one with coaches to provide structured exercise plans and follow-up.
“One of the drivers of this program is to reduce injury and potential absenteeism associated with injury,” Charles said.
In the Philippines, Al Capilit is using his military background to change the bodies and minds of his staff. The U.S. Army Reserve captain and former combat medic, who served two tours in Afghanistan, is the Operations Chief at Pilipinas911 in Manila.
Upon starting his job, Capilit noticed many staff members weren’t in the best of health. He quickly began marshaling his troops into top form.
“I noticed how out of shape our medics were,” Capilit said. “This was totally unacceptable to me. You cannot have an out-of-shape medic, especially in the heat of the tropics. What’s the point of being an expert on all things EMS when you can’t get your patient out of physical danger because you’re too winded or in pain from a short hike that you can’t even lift your first aid bag?”
Capilit began running his staff through cardio and CrossFit classes. His regimen includes a test based on modified U.S. Army physical fitness standards. This involves cardio, lifting medium to heavy weights, and answering basic math and logic questions after two minutes of rest.
“Hey, you still have to assess the patient correctly once you get there,” he said. “You can’t tell them to ‘Move over, I need to sit on your couch for a few,’ right?”
1“NIU psychology study links 9-1-1 dispatchers with post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms.” NIU Today. 2012; March 29. http://www.niutoday.info/2012/03/29/niu-psychology-study-links-9-1-1-dis… (accessed March 20, 2015).
2Bagley, Paul, D. “From the Chair: Dispatching Disease.” 9-1-1 Magazine.com. 2012; June 2. http://www.9-1-1magazine.com/Bagley-From-The-Chair4-Disease (accessed June 10, 2015).