9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Friday, March 27, 2009

Beat Stress: Enhancing Telecommunicator Performance

Article taken from 911 Magazine, July 2008
Written by Kurt Levins, Sr. retired law enforcement officer who specializes in Intelligence and Critical Incident Operations.

Thursday April 20, 1995, was the worst day of my 27-year professional life. I had three friends shot; two died at the scene and the third survived being shot seven times by an AK-47. The shooter barricaded himself and fired on close to 100 officers who responded to the scene. The actual exchange of gunfire went on for 20 minutes and over 1,000 rounds were fired. The incident occurred in the Borough of Hadden Heights (NJ).

A barricaded stand-off ensued until the gunman surrendered 14-hours later after being coaxed out by negotiators. I was one of the negotiators. There was a mystery to the whole incident for me. The shooter was never hit, despite hundreds of police rounds being poured into the house. But for some reason at one point the gunman stopped shooting. No more rounds were fired after that. What made him stop shooting? He had thousands of rounds and multiple weapons available to him. What could it have been?

It wasn't until the trial two years later that I discovered what had occurred. As I was not a direct witness and not called to testify I was able to sit through the entire trial. It was during the testimony of Haddon Heights Police Dispatcher Melissa Bastien that the riddle was solved.

The shooting occurred just before the start of her shift. In the midst of the confusion, Melissa had the calmness and sense of mind to place a call to the shooter's house. He answered, "Hello?" She asked what was going on out there. The shooter said that the police were shooting at him. She told him to stop shooting and he said "Okay" and never fired another shot. I learned a valuable lesson: never underestimate the ability of a professional dispatcher.

Had Melissa panicked, do you think she would have ever come up with that solution? Under that type of stress it would be easy to panic. I'll never know what kept her so calm. But what I can tell you is that based upon my experience in critical incidents and 33 years of martial arts training, I've developed a simple easy to learn way to stay calm in the middle of a storm.

Cause and Effect

Before we start with the actual technique I would like to educate you a little on the effects of stress. Then I'll present a technique for staying calm which is learned through a series of simple exercises. Hopefully, through the use of these exercises throughout your career, you will be able to lessen the effects that stress has on your life.

A critical incident can be defined as any event involving the use of violence and the chance of injury or death to anyone involved. Major traffic accidents, house fires, and mass casualties are critical incidents as is almost every shooting. But further, any incident that tears deeply to the core of our person can be a critical incident.

When a person is thrust into a critical incident the body quickly reacts to protect itself. It dumps a large amount of chemicals into the bloodstream including but not limited to adrenaline and endorphins. Both are very powerful and will affect your behavior. The body also subconsciously tenses the neck and should muscles to protect the head. This is where some of the first symptoms of stress may appear. Ever get a stiff neck during a stressful incident? Now you know why. The body also increases urine and fecal output. It gets rid of everything it doesn't need to conserve energy.

The chemical dump causes your heart rate to increase and also results in increased respiration. As our heart rate increases and the stress continues or increases, we can find our fine motor skills degrading. We can also find our vision tunneling. Should the heart rate rise too high we will find our gross motor skills breaking down and your cognitive processes becoming impaired.

A fine motor skill would be typing your reports or entering a call into your dispatch CAD system. A gross motor skill would be something like answering the telephone. Cognitive processes are your ability to think. One place where you may first recognize this effect is with your memory. Short or long term may be affected. Can't find a pen in the middle of a critical incident? Blame short-term memory loss.

Another effect of stress you may recognize is that your chest begins to heave in order to get more oxygen into your system to support the increased heart rate. Not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, but it continues to feed the stress cycle. Like throwing fuel on top of a fire that you are trying to contain.

The full list of the psycho-physical effects of stress is lengthy and far beyond this article. My suggestion is that if you want to learn more on these effects seek out formal training in the area of critical incident stress. Check with your local training academy to see if any such courses are available (the 911 Magazine website lists a number of critical incident stress resources on the Web links page).

Controlling the Stress Reaction

So we now recognize that we will undergo changes when put into a critical incident situation. Our next step is to control these effects so that we can perform as effectively as possible. Sometimes just recognizing and labeling these reactions will help lessen their impact on our behavior.

Once you learn to recognize the effects of stress, you'll need to learn how to recognize them as they occur under stress. Fortunately, you don't have to run out and become involved in an actual critical situation to learn this skill.

The body doesn't distinguish between stress from a real situation and that from a controlled situation. The easiest controlled situation in which to practice is while doing physical exercise. If you've ever taken part in strenuous athletic activity and tried to think or handle a cognitive problem before you've sufficiently recovered, you can attest to just how hard this is to perform.

The system I am about to teach you comes from Chinese martial arts that combine meditation and fighting. They are the exercises that were taught so a fighter could remain calm during battle and combat.

First go to your retreat. You know the place where you can relax: The comfy chair in the den, the Queen Anne in your bedroom, on your bed, wherever you can relax. Listen to calming music. There is no specific music. Instrumental is best though because lyrics can interfere with your thoughts. I am also thinking that Bach may be more soothing than, say, Metallica.

Assume a comfortable position, feet flat on the floor head straight but not forced. Now picture yourself doing something that relaxes you. Fishing, cooking, sewing, whatever calms you. This is your exercise: don't adopt someone else's idea of what is relaxing only you know what is right for you.

Now pay attention to your breathing. Take it deep into your belly more than high into your chest. This is diaphragmatic breathing and allows the maximum amount of oxygen to be taken into your lungs. Watch a baby breathe and you will observe that they move their bellies in and out and not their chests. You are aiming to do this kind of breathing.

Now when you exhale just as you breathe out the last hit, roll your shoulders forward a little and compress your chest like you're trying to squeeze out the last bit of breath, because that is exactly what you are doing. You are also loosening your shoulders up.

Once you are comfortable with this, try holding your breath after the inhale and exhalation. For how long? Breathe in for three seconds hold exhale for three seconds and hold and repeat. How long should the hold be? One second at first then gradually up to five seconds, no more unless you are training directly under an instructor.

Now I want you to select a sound that you will make on the exhalation. A very common sound that I have found to be easy to do and that is very effective is - um. Some others are ha, aah, so and caa. Those sounds all are common sounds in Eastern meditations. Here is a common one syllable word that may work really well for you: "calm." The sound itself is not important. What is important is that you associate that sound with relaxing. So that you can so program yourself to relax as soon as you hear the sound.

You may by now have a question about this whole technique: in the middle of all of the confusion of a critical incident how am I going to do the technique? Here is a principle that runs consistent through all survival training: whether police, fire, or EMS and other high risk activities. The wrong place to do something for the first time is under stress.

You must learn and integrate these techniques prior to using them. This is and of itself, will allow you to apply these techniques when all around you is a hurricane of voices, radio calls, computer chatter, phones ringing, and so on. Two physical aspects of the techniques are easily visible. These physical components are like the key to a car. Once you turn the key, the rest kicks in automatically. Recognize the effects of stress as it begins to kick into gear, and turn on this calming technique to control the stress before it takes the wheel.

Breathing with your stomach and rolling your shoulders forward with each breath will serve as reminders to control your breath through the incident. Remember, once you can relax using these techniques you no longer have to recite the sound aloud. You can just say it to yourself while working away.

If you have a little kit you carry to work every day with notes, phonebooks, whatever, write the word "Calm" on an index card. At the start of the shift, place it somewhere around your display console. Then every time you see the "Calm" card during an incident, it will remind your subconscious to kick in the relaxation technique.

I once taught this system to a police sergeant at 2:00 PM. At 9:00 PM that very same day he was involved in delivering a baby. The next day in class he told me that he started the controlled breathing on the way to the call and stayed calm throughout the entire situation. His exact statement was, "I could not believe how easy and effective it was."

Have you ever met a person who just stays calm no matter what happens? Just before Halloween, my sergeant and I were standing next to the dispatch area. We were a small department and only worked two officers at a time. Our dispatcher, Chuck Roberts, answered a call and took down some notes. He then turned to us as calmly as could be and said, "At such and such address, in the rear apartment...a lady came home and found her boyfriend hanging..." I dropped everything I was doing and raced to the scene, past the family outside and into the apartment. I found a male subject hanging with a ligature around his neck. I found no vital signs -- in fact I found signs of obvious death. I was then securing the entire scene and realized I was still by myself, no sergeant. I got on the radio and called him and he got there about a minute later.

When he got there I asked what had taken him so long. I'll never forget his answer. "Chuck was so calm I thought he was playing a Halloween practical joke on us. I never thought it was a real call until I heard you calling for the prosecutor's office and coroner to respond."

Few people can stay as calm as that dispatcher without training. My hope is that you are blessed and never have to be involved in a truly traumatic critical incident. But if you do, having this technique in your professional arsenal of tools will help both during and after the incident.

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