By Audrey Fraizer
Emergency Dispatchers and calltakers tend to favor the adrenaline rush, the no-day-is-like-the-last feeling, and doing good in the world as reasons for staying with the profession.
At least, that’s what we’re told and what we can determine from talking to this rare breed working at a job that takes lots of guts while providing little glory.
We seldom hear grandiose “It’s all about me” replies in relation to awards or any type of recognition. Instead, it’s the “We’re not in it for the praise,” or “Anyone in this room would have done the same,” offhand sort of remark following a particularly trying call.
You wear thick skins well. “I-can-do-everything” personalities are like that.
But sometimes even thick skins wear thin. The rapid succession of emergency calls, the trauma of events heard over the phone, the inability to control outcome no matter how hard you try, and the usual give-and-take involved with putting a lot of people in the same room for long periods of time take their toll.
Although precise definitions and symptoms differ, the most useful and widely accepted definition of stress (attributed to Richard S. Lazarus) is a condition or feeling when a person perceives that “demands exceed the personal and social resources the individual is able to mobilize.”
When constantly reacting to stressful situations without making adjustments to counter the effects, you will feel stress that can threaten health and well-being. Nobody likes the sense of feeling out of control.
Normal degrees of stress—given the right fuel—can escalate into something bigger and make you feel like something is pushing you over the edge. Life loses zest. Performance suffers, and there are days when going about a normal routine or adding one minor task at the end of your shift is mind-boggling and taxing.
Ironically, people shouldering the pressure for others rarely see the pressure crashing down on them, or they ignore the signs in a passion to succeed. Overabundance of anything also takes time to accumulate and recognize. We don’t wake up one morning only to discover that the pants worn comfortably the day before are suddenly a size too small.
While stress is nothing new to emergency dispatch, it’s only been during the past several years that research has both acknowledged and started to quantify the effects on personal and professional life. The demands emergency dispatch places on physical and mental energy are no longer perceived as outside the realm of non-visual participation.
For our feature about stress in this issue of the Journal, we look at pioneering academic research into the question of emergency dispatch and its effects on physiology and behavior. Initial goals of a study now underway includes developing a better sense of day-to-day operations at a communication center and—through the data collected—learning more about how constant exposure to traumatic events influences mental health, professional burnout, coping strategies, and beliefs about the world.
We also hear from experts, such as Jim Marshall and Kim Rigden, and emergency dispatchers who give us their insight into triggering events, acknowledging the symptoms, and building resiliency. We describe programs that centers are offering to help their employees.
While we have no definitive answers for dodging the toll stress can take, we hope the stories—and others in the future—add to the understanding of possibility. Things can only get better.
There are several sites online to assess your stress level:
• What’s Your Stress Index? Canadian Mental Health Association at www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newTCS_82.htm
• Stress Screener. Mental Health America at www.mentalhealthamerica.net/stress-screener
• A series of tests are available from Psychology Today at www.psychologytoday.com/tests