9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Monday, March 16, 2009

Dispatcher's Hidden Critical Moments

The effects of critical incidents on officer and chiefs are known. Much has been written on how to recognize the warning signs -- changes in both attitude and ability to perform duties. By focusing attention on this human aspect, we hope to maintain optimal operating efficiency.

There is, however, another human link, someone with a lower profile who is also exposed to a job-specific, critical incident stress; the dispatcher.

Loss of Control

A critical incident is a sudden and uncontrollalbe event that causes muliple disruptions in life. It affects your basic personnel operating security about the world in which you live and the way that world works. A critical incident is perceived as a life-damaging event and often includes a sense of loss, most significantly a loss of personal stability and control. The ability to impose control on otherwise uncontrollable situations is very much at the heart of public service. To that end, the dispatcher is a vital link. He must preplan, know his tools, drill, and be disciplined.

Those unfamiliar with communications center operations may think that a dipatcher's job is sometimes exciting, often dull, and not expecially demanding. The first two perceptions are correct; the last is dead wrong. It's what you don't hear over the scanner that is demanding.

Dispatcher talk on the phone to panic-stricken and disoriented people. They may be the last hope in life for some of them -- and in some cases, even that hope is not sufficient. Although they are required to remain calm and controlled on the air, inside they pay the price in stress.

One-to-One Crisis

The quickly developing disruptive force of the dispatcher's critical incident is focused through a telephone conversation with one person. It's intensely personal. I have been in dispatch centers when dispatchers are engaged in everyday conversation -- picking football winners, joking, planning the shift's meal -- when a single phone rings. One of the dispatching staff goes over to a console and picks up the call while the others continue talking. Suddenly the dispatcher on the phone straightens up in his chair and begins writing frantically. Across the room, the discussion of hamburgers vs. chicken continues. While the dispatcher on the phone hears the horrific sounds of panic, turmoil, injury and loss, nobody else in the room is aware of the situation. It's just between the caller and the dispatcher.

The dispatcher knows he's got a serious situation and his perception of that situation may be "By God, I'd better get the details straight or somebody's going to die!" Some dispatchers in this type of situation jump up and start waving their hands while they're still on the phone, trying to get help with getting help. Others run around the dispatch center and follow the alarm's processing even though they cannot speed up the process. Afterward, some receiving dispatchers (who took the original call) have said that it seemed to take hours to get the call into they system, get the apparatus rolling, and get a preliminary report from the field forces, when, in fact, alarm analysis invariably showed that the responses were as quick or quicker than usual.

What the Dispatcher Perceives

The physical responses of jumping up, waving arms, and following the call through the dispatch center are relief valves for the dispatcher's need to do something with the horrible information he has just received. In fact, these behaviors can occasionally result in a more productive response to an alarm.

For the most part, though the call gets processed just as fast as always. Why, then, does it seem like it takes forever? One of the characteristics of a critical incident is perceptual distortion. Two-thirds of police officers involved in shootings, for instance, report a feeling of "slow motion" when recalling the incident. The same phenomenon afflicts dispatchers involved in critical incidents.

Perception plays a very important part in the entire issue of critical incident stress -- what is a critical incident for one dispatcher may not be for another. This is not a sign of weakness on the part of the affected dispatcher but rather a sign of individuality. Each dispatcher brings a different background to the job. A young, single dispatcher, listening to the tape of a fire call taken by an older dispatcher who is the father of four children, may not notice on the first review that crying kids could be heard faintly in the background. The older dispatcher, on the other hand, may not be able to get it out of his mind.

It may also appear that a dispatcher is unaffected by a call when, in fact, he's been scarred by the event more than even he knows. I know a dispatcher who dismissed all of his nightmarish experiences with a macho "To hell with it, it's just a job." However, as the years have passed, he has taken much of the job to heart, has done so alone, and has steadily increased his drinking. He's paying the price.

Another factor that alters a dispatcher's perception of events and causes him to view incidents with more alarm is past experience with a similar situation. If, for instance, he has seen co-workers interrogated for hours after receiving a bomb threat, the next bomb threat he receives may cause his pulse to quicken. After I had taken what was purported to be a terrorist threat to blow up a few buildings, investigative units I didn't even know existed asked me the strangest questions. Besides the standard questions about background noises and accents, one investigator asked me if I thought the caller sounded like a big guy. After that experience, my fellow workers and I were concerned for a while about finding an accurate way to measure height by telephone!

Lessening the Severity

A department can help its dispatchers handle critical incidents. It can warn them that such things do happen. This will make it easier for dispatchers to realize when it does happen. It will also validate the feelings that the dispatcher experiences after a critical incident and reassure him that he is having a normal response to an extraordinarily abnormal stimulus.

The affected dispatcher can expect to "numb out" for a week or two after the event. In fact, he may have difficulty remembering some or all of what happened. In his personal sphere, the threat represented by the event is enormous -- it eats at the very heart of his personal support system and basic assumptions about life. He may become preoccupied with the event -- trying to master it or control it in retrospect. Failure to do this may make him irritable or hyperactive. He may become mildly paranoid about his co-workers' assessments of his performance during the event, and good-natured kidding may cause him considerable anxiety.

If the critical incident was a part of something unusual -- such as a fatal fire -- the official investigation can keep some of the dispatcher's initial uncomfortable feelings fueled. If the event was not recognized by others for the personal disruption it was, the dispatcher could easily slip into isolation and depression unnoticed. He may experience the symptoms of acute post-traumatic stress disorder and have nightmares or difficulty sleeping, loss of interest in social and family activities, increased substance use and abuse, flashbacks and/or intrusive thoughts, fear about future similar job situations, and intensive self-blaming. Without some help, a dispatcher can stay in this dysfunctional frame of mind for quite some time. In a department whose dispatching force has been prepared for this occurrence, it is far more likely that somebody will recognize the cause of these symptoms.

The department can also help ease critical incidents by discussing realistic expectations during dispatch training. There are going to be some events that nobody can control. The "can-do" attitude needs to be tempered somewhat with reality. The ever present assumption of "I am in total control" only leads to self-blame in negative outcomes. In retrospect it becomes "I should have been in control and I wasn't, and now it's my fault that those people died."

Drilling for potential critical incidents, with detailed emphasis on the mental/emotional side of the event as well as the tactics/logistics aspect, will go a long way toward lessening the severity of such occurrences. Understand that "poor me" responses such as "What did I do to deserve this?" may well pop into a dispatcher's head. Make sure to include in your emotional drill the acknowledgement that "Who I am" and "What I do" are two different things. Realize that if you do experience a critical incident, it is not because of who you are, but because of what you do. You become involved in a critical incident because of your job; part of that job should be knowing both its limitations and yours.

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