9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Managing Stress

Article taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine February 2006
Written by Tony Harrison, President of Public Safety Group

Stress is unavoidable. For the public safety communications professional, stress is even more pervasive than for others. You are required to work in the middle of the night, holidays, disasters and other times when people lock themselves in their houses. There is no way to eliminate the stress of your job or your home. The key is to find stress management techniques that work for you.

Stress has been defined as our response to anxiety-producing events, our reaction to change and the non-specific response of the body to any demand made on it. No matter what definition you use, stress involves our response to an event. When an event happens, information about that event is directed to our brains from our senses of sight, vision, hearing, touch and smell. Once that information is gathered, our brain must assign meaning to the event. That's when the event becomes stressful or non-stressful.

There are basically two types of stress, positive and negative. Positive stress helps us reach our peak efficiency. Then, once a challenge is met, we relax and enjoy our achievement. An example of positive stress at work is a busy Friday night. We achieve our peak efficiency and do our best work when it is busy, but once the rush is over, we relax and enjoy a job well done.

Negative stress is when we stay geared up or don't relax once a challenge is met. An example of negative stress may be mandatory overtime. The constant work requires us to be geared up all the time, allowing us no time to relax.

Positive and negative stress also occur at home. For example, positive stress at home may involve a busy weekend with the kids, although some people find this an example of negative stress. The important point is that stress is positive when you can relax and enjoy your achievement. It is negative when you stay geared up all the time.

The Fight-of-Flight Response

The fight-or-flight mechanism evolved to save our lives during an immediate physical threat. Today, it can give us an adrenaline high or help us deal with perceived emergencies.

Your body reacts to the meaning your brain has assigned to an event. If you receive a shooting call and your brain perceives it as a threat to your body, your body will react and start the fight-of-flight response. There is no doubt the call is an emergency, but the call does not require a figh-or-flight response for you to respond appropriately.

Another example is when your relief calls in sick, which will require you to work an additional four to eight hours. Many times this will cause you stress and problems at home, but it does not require a fight-or-flight response. Many dispatchers have become adrenaline junkies, starting the fight-or-flight mechanism of their bodies several times a day to deal with emergency calls and new policies of administrators who we feel have no real idea about our job.

When you begin the fight-or-flight response, there are physical changes in your body. Here is a list of physiological changes:
  • Hair shafts stand erect.
  • Pupils dilate to sharpen vision.
  • Breathing tubes open wider for deeper breathing.
  • Digestion slows.
  • Perspiration increases to keep the body cool.
  • Muscles receive more blood, readying the body for vigorous action.
  • Blood vessels on surface of skin contract to reduce bleeding.
  • Blood sugar increases.
  • Blood pressure rises.
  • Heart beats faster.

You can see that the body is not designed to do this several times a day. The fight-or-flight response will hamper your ability to dispatch. As your body pumps additional blood to the major muscle groups, it takes blood away from the extremities, including your fingers. Dispatching requires a great amount of manual dexterity, which is reduced during the fight-or-flight response.


The first stress-management technique for those of us who start the fight-or-flight response for the adrenaline high is to stop when possible. The next time you get an emergency call and you feel the fight-or-flight response kicking in, take a second to stop yourself and remind your brain that it is safe. This may be difficult to do. In the middle of a shooting call, you may feel you don't have time to worry about your brain, because you must react to the call. But you are a master of multitasking. You can take the call while telling your brain that the fight-or-flight response is not needed.

One of the first steps to managing stress is to realize when we are under stress. Many of us constantly feel the effects of positive and negative stress. Because of this, it becomes difficult to realize when we are under too much stress.


When confronted with extreme amounts of negative stress, our bodies try to warn us. Many times these warnings go unheard by us. The first step in stress management is to recognize when we are under stress. Once we recognize we are under stress, we can employ techniques to fight it. The bodies' stress warnings will be different for each of us, but here are some common warnings:

  • Muscle tightness
  • Headaches
  • Muscle soreness
  • Heartburn
  • Upset stomach
  • Irritability.

You must learn how your body reacts to stress and, when under stress, to employ stress management techniques that work for you. Here are several techniques. Find the ones that work for you.

Change Your Perceptions

One of the most powerful stress management techniques is to look at the meaning your brain assigns to an event and see if the meaning is unrealistic or if you can change that meaning. Stress begins when your brain assigns meaning to an event. If we can change that meaning, we can manage stressful events.

For example, when you drive home today, most of you will confront the following: another driver will do something stupid, pull in front of you or drive slower than you'd like. Your reaction could be to simply relax, knowing that it is no big deal. Or it could be to yell, scream profanities and wave at the person with only one finger. Or your body could react with, "Oh, no! I am going to hit this person."

If the latter is your reaction, it is a good bet your body will start the fight-or-flight response. To reduce stress, we should look at the first two responses. It is possible for us to change our perception of this event. If someone pulls in front of you and no one is hurt, who cares? With this philosophy of "no harm, no foul," your stress levels will stay down. When you get mad, yell and scream, you create stress in your life. Your brain gives the meaning to the event that the other driver was careless or reckless and could have hurt someone. Tell your brain to say it is no big deal. Maybe the person just did not see you. You choose how upset you will be.

Another example: you report to work one day and find your supervisor has written a memorandum that you believe is stupd, unenforceable and worthless. You get angry, your blood pressure increases, your voice rises and there goes another day at work. Why not change the meaning to reduce and manage the stress of the event?

Many times we expect people to do things and be people they cannot. We expect a boss who has never worked in the communications center to understand the work. We expect that boss to make informed, intelligent decisions. We expect family members to be "normal." The problem is these are our expectations. When we change our expectations to be more realistic, we manage the stress in our lives.

Expect bosses to write memorandums from time to time with which we do not agree. If you can convince the boss that the new policy is not workable, do that. If you can't, then you have to live with it.

The great Indian scholar Shanitdeva said, "If there is a way to overcome the suffering, then there is no need to worry. If there is no way to overcome the suffering, then there is no use in worrying." This philosophy can help us work in the communications center. So many times we become stressed about things we have no control over. The next time your boss issues a "stupid" memo, remember this and manage your stress.

The Burden of Perfection

Many of us gladly accept the burden of perfection. We expect ourselves to be the perfect dispatcher, spouse or parent. The problem is the burden of perfection is a no-win situation. It becomes a source of stress. What if we make a mistake at work? Someone could get hurt. What if we make a mistake in raising our children?

We all make mistakes, no matter how good we are. None of us is perfect. Instead of trying to be perfect all the time, why not try to be the best we can and accept mistakes for what they are: mistakes? Make realistic expectations of your performance whether as a dispatcher of as a person.

Deep Breathing

Breathing is an easy stress management technique any dispatcher can learn to use. When we get busy at work or at home, many times our breathing becomes shallow and rapid. Breathing slowly and deeply can reduce your heart rate and your stress. The next time you are feeling stressed, take a second and breathe. Follow the steps below.

  • Breathe in through your nose for four seconds.
  • Hold for seven seconds.
  • Breathe out for eight seconds.
  • Repeat three times.


Our profession requires us to be ready 24 hours a day. Once we come home, many do not have the luxury of relaxing. Children, spouses, family and other significant others demand our attention and time. But it is important that all of us learn how to relax.

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