By Tracey Barron
Results are in!
Data collected from a survey investigating repeated stress and its potential impact on a 9-1-1 dispatcher’s quality of life has been compiled and evaluated in an article published in the Annals of Emergency Dispatch & Response (AEDR) (Volume 3, Issue 1, available at aedrjournal.org).
So as not to create a spoiler (survey results), I will first explain the method used to gather the data and describe the personal and professional information dispatchers were asked to provide.
Based on literature supporting the potential of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in emergency dispatch, the research team’s intent was to identify the impact of symptoms related to chronic traumatic event exposure; the subsequent effect on job performance; and, based on specific call types and career measures (e.g., number of years as a dispatcher), potential points of intervention.
The research contrasted results for respondents that could be categorized as having acute stress disorder (ASD)—nine or more symptoms of ASD classification—and not having it, according to their survey responses.
A most exciting facet of the survey was the exploratory analysis of a call’s characteristics—what about that call makes it so distressing to handle that it can lead to critical stress, job dissatisfaction, and burnout? This research represents the first time data has been taken to this level of detail—down to the type of call—in the emergency dispatch realm.
The 205 participants were emergency dispatch professionals and primarily female. At the time of the survey, participants were between 18 years and over 60 years, and the majority (57.1 percent) were married. They work predominantly day shift and have been in the profession for 13 to 19 years, dispatching for fire, police, and medical.
The survey asked them to rate a list of 30 calls created for the research; the list included fire, police, and medical calls. To each call on the list, they assigned a value between 0 (None) and 5 (Extremely) for both acute stress experienced and the degree to which the call affected functioning at work and home.
Respondents also completed a questionnaire indicating the current sources of stress among 17 potential sources listed, along with a symptomatic ASD diagnostic test and a self-report to measure professional quality of life—using measures from validated quality of life templates.
The study findings demonstrated that emergency dispatchers are likely to be at risk for ASD and job performance adversely affected by burnout and secondary traumatic stress (STS). The study results revealed a rate of ASD significantly greater than the general population (17 percent endorsed the presence of nine or more ASD symptoms). Dispatchers are also more likely to be at a higher risk, compared to the general population, for mental health problems that contribute to interpersonal, occupational, and social difficulties.
Not surprisingly, study participants reporting nine or more symptoms of ASD related to a call taken within the past 30 days also found specific types of calls to be more stressful, compared to those not meeting the criteria.
Calls involving children, suicide, structure fires, first-party callers, and those requiring the dispatcher to calm an uncooperative caller were rated as significantly more stressful for individuals meeting criteria for ASD. Calls involving traffic accidents, suicides, and children were also more likely to affect the quality of life for participants meeting ASD criteria.
The study also found a higher rate of compassion satisfaction that was unrelated to ASD symptoms, indicating that despite these stressful conditions, dispatchers find their role as helpers to be personally rewarding.
Further research will attempt to identify contributing factors to stressful situations and a dispatcher’s ability to draw upon experience to minimize the symptoms leading to professional and personal disabling forms of stress.