9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Friday, March 20, 2009

Getting a Handle on Dispatcher Stress

Taken from Emergency Number Professional Magazine, Sept. 2008
Written by T.P. McAtamney, founder of Headsets911, which provides stress management and interpersonal communication classes to 911 centers all across the country. He is the author of the e-book, Stress and the Dispatcher--Surviving the Console.

The fact that 911 dispatching is stressful is not news to those who work in the field. Perhaps you have been to "Stress Management" classes or seminars and learned some good tips and were even able to use some of the techniques you learned, but after a period of time you found yourself going back into your "old habits" of dealing with stress; if you think about it, these weren't the best or even the healthiest of ways.

Behaviorists tell us that we only retain about 10 percent of what we hear and forget the rest. Knowing that, there is no way that a one or two-day training session is going to have and long-term effect on how you deal with stress unless you decide to do something about it. I know this is true because I dispatched 911, police, fire and EMS for 10 years, and over those years I went to a few stress management classes as well. They were good classes with good instructors and content, but the fact is that I was there because I either "had to be there," or I just wanted a day out of the center. On one occasion it was after a midnight shift so I basically slept through it. No stress there!

Actually, I always believed that I could deal with my own stress with or without any extra training, so like Frank Sinatra sang, "I did it my way." My way was to provide a "tough exterior" and "beware of the dog" personality--kind of what some people expect of the "Senior Dispatcher" which I was at my agency. I wasn't aware of it, and I wasn't necessarily trying to "be nasty," but it's just the way I handled the job and what I felt were the "annoyances" of it. Toward the end of my career my way would betray me as my personal life took a turn for the worst. In a three-month period my mother was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, my wife with colon cancer and if that wasn't enough, my father's eyesight was lost through Macular Degeneration. Talk about bad luck!

This is where what I was taught from day-one at the console, "Never let them see you sweat" would come back to haunt me. As a 911 dispatcher, I quickly got the impression early on that I must always be in control of everything at all times and never, ever under any circumstances show that I couldn't "handle it." So during this entire crisis I worked and cared for my wife, mom and dad, and because my wife wasn't able to work I made up the difference by working extra shifts and overtime. I think during this period I got an average of two-hours of sleep per night, and most importantly I didn't ask for help. I never asked anyone for anything.

Being a former military person I tried to stay in shape by jogging three miles per day, and biked more than 40 miles a week, while eating all the right things. Then, one day while out jogging I felt a tightening in my chest that got increasingly worse over the next few hours. My first reaction was to ignore it ("I'm okay") but my wife overruled that and I went to the local emergency room. There, in triage, they found my blood pressure to be 160/135. For you EMS types you know that isn't good and I got what they call the "Blue Light Special" as they slapped me down on a gurney, placed nitro patches on my ches, and admitted me into the hospital overnight for observation. The next morning the doctor came in and told me that I had suffered a mild heart attack, but that there was no damage to my heart and I could go home in the afternoon after a few more tests. Yet, I could tell he seemed disturbed by the fact that I looked "good" referring to being in-shape, proper weight, etc., and there was no apparent risk factors. I didn't smoke; I didn't eat anything but the healthy stuff and my blood tests showed that. In fact my usual blood pressure averaged 90/68, typical for runners. So, his question to me was, "What in the heck is going on in your life?" and for the first time I let go and talked about everything I was going through. After I finished, he started backing away from the bed and when I asked him why he said, "You're about to explode and I don't want to get any of you on me!" He then told me--or rather scolded me--to begin to deal with the stress of what I was going through before it killed me, as it had nearly done.

I couldn't argue with him. I knew I was in trouble, but I didn't know where to start. So after getting released from the hospital I spent the next year and a half studying everything I could get my hands on about stress and stress management. As I studied, I began to put into practice the things that worked for me. It was subtle at first; I began to see--and others did too--the change.

I would soon retire from dispatching after this but the learning would continue. One day I decided that I would take what I had learned and pass it on to other 911 dispatchers. As I've traveled the country talking to both 911 dispatchers and supervisors I've seen a lot of people who seem to be where I used to be. Many times they will sit in my class and tell me that "I don't think I'm really that stressed" or "I don't know why they sent me!" An attitude that I should note which usually changes after the class is over. The fact is that stress affects everyone. It's not whether you have it, but rather how you are dealing with it that counts! You can't manage stress if you don't know exactly what it is you are managing.

What is Stress?

Stress is simply any pressure on us that demands that we react to it. This could be anything at all that happens to us--a broken shoelace to a serious life change. However, stress isn't the enemy. Stress is a perfectly normal occurrence in everyday life.

It's important to understand that there are two types of stress, positive and negative. Positive stress--good stress--is what helps us to achieve our best, such as doing a good job, completing school or whatever else helps us realize our potential. Subsequently, we do not want to "deal" with positive stress. It's good for us.

On the other hand, negative stress--bad stress--is the kind of stress we want to limit and deal with in our lives. Yet, it's the hardest type to deal with because its source is "cognitive" or dealing with the way we think, which makes it harder to change sometimes.

Laws and Consequences

How we view the things that happen to us is filtered through our beliefs, prejudices and values. Incidentally, this is what contributes to conflict in the workplace. These beliefs come from our upbringing--parents, peers and life experiences. They are our "laws" about how people should behave and how things should be. For instance, I may have a belief (law) that when I say "Good Morning" to you, you have to say "Good Morning" back to me, otherwise you're "rude."

Let's break it down. I have a "law" that if not upheld provides a "consequence." So if you violate my "law" you should be "punished." This comes from the ABC's of behavior. Here's how it works:

A=The Event (I said "Good Morning")
B=The Belief (You should say "Good Morning" back to me)
C= The Consequence (If you don't follow my "law" you are rude and wrong!)

Using this formula, you can see that in just about every case where you were annoyed or bothered by a person or a sitation--one of your "laws" has been violated. Let's go back to that "law" I was taught in the beginning of my career in dispatch-never let it seem that I couldn't handle the pressure. (Actually, no one ever specifically said that but I got that impression from the atmosphere of the training I received.) You may remember early in your career of a similar impression that told you "No matter what, don't make a mistake!" We all understand the critical nature of the job and mistakes can have really bad consequences. However, we are all very human and unless one is perfect, mistakes will be made sooner or later. It's not a matter of whether you do, but of when you do. The issue isn't how or when you make a mistake, it is the effect that "fear of failure" has on you. It's not the actual mistake that gets us, but the fear of making that mistake that can wear us out.

Address the Way You Think

While fear of making errors to a certain extent is healthy as it keeps us on our toes, it can also have a negative effect. You might remember from your school days that the pressure of the test wasn't in the answering the questions, but the fear of failing. The only problem is that no one ever flunked a test by fearing to fail it, but by simply not answering the questions correctly, more of a failure to study.

Much of the stress we face as dispatchers comes from this subjective fear of failing, or "screwing it up." Whether we feel that an officer made us "look stupid," that our partner "Is talking about me behind my back" or we think our supervisor is out to get us, it's all wrapped up in subjective fear of something that is only really taking place in our minds. Remember this is where negative stress is rooted.

Here is the key: "As we think, so we feel, therefore we are!" Or, whatever our mind thinks about determines how our emotions respond and that determines our behavior. Therefore, if I think that I can't ask for help or tell someone I can't handle it, then my emotions will respond to those thoughts (beliefs, laws, etc.) and I will behave accordingly. If I think angry thoughts I will get angry. If I think fearful thoughts I will get fearful. "Negative" stress is rooted in "negative thinking." So, if we are going to get a handle on dispatcher stress we are going to have to address the way we think. The pressures we face and the things that happen to us are what they are, it's our perception of them that determines how they will affect us.

It's important to understand that it's not a matter of us being "crazy" because we let things bother us, but that we have to look at the things that happen to us and ask ourselves whether we are dealing with them objectively and realistically.

What helped me to change was a process where I began to challenge those "laws" which I, or others, had for me. I began to ask myself why I had them and more importantly were they true? Was it true that I could never ask for help? Was it true that when I said "Good Morning" that the recipient was "required" to respond back to me? I even asked, "Did I care whether they were having a good morning?" I began to challenge all of my beliefs and values that I saw as causing me negative stress and discard them as needed. Change won't happen overnight, but if you begin to do what I did you will begin to see change too!

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