When was the last time you asked your teenagers if they knew what to do if kidnapped, what to do in case of a fire, or remind them not to get into a stranger’s car?
If the teenager, do you understand why you’re drilled about what to do if someone should try to abduct you, why you’re a given an evening curfew much earlier than anyone else your age, or why there’s sometimes an empty chair at the table on Thanksgiving?
Answering ‘yes’ to any of these questions could be a give-away for identifying a person in the emergency dispatch profession or related to someone who is.
Sabrina Thomas was entering first grade when her mother Elizabeth Belmonte was hired as an emergency dispatcher at Cambridge Emergency Communications in Cambridge, Massachusetts (USA). Often scheduled for either the 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. or 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. shift, and sometimes a double shift, Belmonte would head straight for home to recharge her batteries for the next shift and the hour-long drive each way.
“Mom time” was not a guarantee.
“I was a little girl who was very close to my mom,” Thomas said. “I didn’t fully understand why she needed her rest. I’d go into the bedroom wanting to talk to her and she’d give me the death glare. I knew I had to leave the room as soon as possible.”
Fast forward eight years to high school and the “everlasting nightmare” that led to a rift between mother and daughter. Thomas said she “despised” her mom’s job scheduled, resented answering a ‘what if’ checklist every time she was headed out with friends, and felt “distraught” at yet another holiday in the absence of her mom. Thomas’s over cautious learned nature earned her the title of “mom” among friends.
If that wasn’t enough, then came the period her mom was disguised as the antagonistic Cruella de Vil of Disney’s animated adventure 101 Dalmatians. Although not dismissing her mom’s off and on-again testiness and not understanding where it came from, she told herself that this is the way her mom was and would always be.
“I was afraid to ask for help or advice because I wanted to avoid the stress,” Thomas said.
Home was a cauldron ready to boil over. Thomas couldn’t leave fast enough. Belmonte chalked up the deepening rift to teen-age angst. They avoided the conversation.
The real factor wasn’t up for discussion until Belmonte agreed to participate in a study involving critical stress and the emergency dispatcher. It was topical and fit into her role as the 911 center training supervisor. She recognized stress among co-workers and wanted data to develop resources to help them.
“What about your own family,” Thomas asked when Belmonte told her about the project. “What are you going to do for us?”
Thomas’s response gave Belmonte pause.
“Sabrina got my attention, that’s for sure,” Belmonte said.
Maybe she was partly to blame for her daughter’s distancing. Maybe her daughter’s seemingly “petty” problems were every bit as urgent as those of a 911 caller. Maybe her daughter just didn’t get it. Maybe Belmonte was in denial. Admittedly, Belmonte had been in the dark about how the bottled-up critical stress was affecting her moods and the relationship with her daughter.
“She was not as resilient as I had thought,” Belmonte said.
Emergency dispatchers don’t often realize what they’re bringing home, particularly because most keep a tight lid on the situations they encounter at work, said Anne Camaro, assistant director, Cambridge Emergency Communications.
“There’s a perception that since we’re not talking about it, we’re not affecting anyone,” said Camaro, who left wholesale 12 years ago to work in emergency communications. “We don’t do anything about the stress on us, but when we learned how it was affecting a family member, it was time we did something about it.”
Belmonte said judgment calls were often made in the interest of protecting her daughter in the context of what she was hearing over the headset. She answered calls from parents panicked over a missing child, teenage drivers and automobile fatalities, suicides, attempted suicides, overdoses, and the life-threatening mistakes made from a young adult’s hasty decision. The checklist was a shield against the dangers her 911 job exposed.
“I was hypervigilant,” she said. “I knew what could happen because of what I did.”
Yes, the hours were crazy, the calls hard, and the holidays sacrificed. But these were issues Belmonte accepted and so should her family. She did make exceptions, like one Christmas Day Thomas sat with her mom at the communication center.
“She wanted to be near me, so I said OK,” Belmonte said. “But this was my job.”
There was little Belmonte could do about it and, after all, she did love the work despite the demands it placed on her and the family.
“There’s a very human side of what we do,” she said. “We can and do make a difference in a person’s life.”
Now, as Belmonte realized, it was time to make a difference at home.
“We had to start the conversation,” she said.
Belmonte was easily persuaded to join in a study examining 911-associated critical stress from the perspective of family and friends, proposed by Camaro and D. Jeremy DeMar, Director, emergency communications, Springfield Emergency Communications, Springfield, Massachusetts (USA). Camaro and DeMar had heard Thomas speak on the subject at the Massachusetts Communications Supervisor’s meeting. The talk hit home literally for DeMar.
“Hey, it’s not just about you but your family as well,” DeMar said. “Just ask my wife.”
DeMar started in dispatch 16 years ago and, similarly to his years in ambulance service and volunteer firefighting, found stress inherent to the job they do. Post after post on his Facebook page features his push to achieve first responder status for emergency dispatchers, studies addressing the health impact of stressful jobs and their cost to the organization, and preparing communication staff for image-related 911 technology.
Plenty of studies confirm the personal effects of demanding jobs and, DeMar said, it was time to take the next step in the dispatch profession, particularly considering changes in technology. The impact on people 9-1-1 professionals live with warranted further research and, apparently, DeMar’s thinking was right on target.
“A lot of people wanted to chime in,” DeMar said. “We’re eager at this point to introduce what we’ve found.”
Camaro is fanatical about collecting and applying data to show, in this study, the basis for building emergency dispatch to a level of recognition equal to other public safety professions. It’s not a profession you can leave at the door each day.
“There is nothing that can prepare you for what happens on any day,” she said. “There’s a lot you’re going to hear that is not normal. The perception of how we might affect others, what the family was feeling, is an area we wanted to learn more about. How can we alleviate some of the stress? How can we learn to manage it better at home?”
A fourth person in the project—Adam Timm—is lending his expertise as a former emergency dispatcher with the Los Angeles Police Department, California, (USA) where he organized a stress resilience program that led to the founding of his training and consulting company, The Healthy Dispatcher.
The four researchers developed a 10-question survey for their Family Impact Study and posted it online. They are now in the process of analyzing the 500 survey responses received.
Results will inform materials for training and workshops. They will not give advice. It’s about creating awareness.
“Step back and take a look at what’s happening at home,” she said. “It’s no longer the mentality to tough it out. Together, we can do something to make it better for everyone.”
Advice from experience
Now 20 years old, Thomas can talk candidly without fear of repercussion.
“I can tell you anything,” she said during a Cambridge 911 presentation co-hosted with her mom. “She can’t ground me.”
The comment was made mostly in jest. Thomas doesn’t cast stones. Having Belmonte as her mom wasn’t the problem. The problem was a profession and all its trimmings that got in the way of their relationship, along with two “very stubborn women,” Thomas said, living under the same roof.
They butted heads.
Time and two-way understanding have helped bridge the rift. Belmonte has opened up about her profession, giving Thomas insight into understanding her mom’s hypervigilance, impatience, and emotional withdrawal. Work-related stress compounded by a refusal to acknowledge the impact and redirect her feelings [not bring them home] were in dire need of straightening out.
“I was in the dark about how my family felt,” Belmonte said. “I wasn’t paying attention to my own stress and Sabrina was very careful not to stress me out any more than I already was. She didn’t talk about her issues. I wasn’t giving her 100%. I missed out on that.”
Stress reduction started as something personal for Timm. The problem tipping his emotional balance wasn’t the 911 callers. The opportunity to help in a crisis buoyed him. He found satisfaction in the ability to help people in crisis. His nerves were frayed from complaints about loud music from an ice cream truck, neighbors throwing trash over their fence to the yard next door, or a cat digging up a flowerbed. Those were the callers diminishing the emergency dispatcher’s role and potentially putting others at risk with their inappropriate use of 911.
Timm said he wasn’t good at hiding his stress and, instead, found he was taking out his anger at fellow dispatchers and nursing headaches and indigestion. The job’s toll was evident and in choosing to sink or swim, he created his own lifeboat of survival skills. He prioritized self-care, which is one of the concepts he shares in his training classes, and why he is so keen on the research.
“It’s about putting back what has been depleted,” he said. “It’s about starting a conversation we’re not already having.”
Like Timm, Thomas and Belmonte moved ahead, preferring to help others based on their own experience rather than dwell in the inertia of “should haves” in their relationship. Thomas recommends educating your family—the good, the bad, and the ugly—to provide a better understanding of what goes on in emergency communication and, also, hanging up the work-related stress alongside the headset at a shift’s end.
“I know that’s hard,” she said. “But the last thing I wanted to see is you [her mom] coming home in a bad mood when I’ve waited for you all day.”
Maybe the best time to talk isn’t the second the person walks through the door but, as Camaro said, leave space available and “make it a point to have someone to talk to.”
Belmonte said it was tough listening to what her daughter experienced yet, on the positive side, she started acknowledging the toll the job can take and has gone forward from there. She shares what she can about work and, as training instructor, she provides resources and recommendations to foster a balance between work and personal life. She encourages breaks at work and establishing a network of peer support. To assist in developing interventions, the survey questions the approximate time a family member or friend started noticing personality changes (moodiness, anger, withdrawal).
Camaro said the initial project could lead to further research and assist in coping with the advent of technology exposing emergency dispatchers to greater sensory disruptions.
“Honestly, it’s a cool project,” Camaro said. “Who knows where it will end or where it will lead us. It’s time to do something about it.”