9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Friday, March 20, 2009

SOS: Self Originated Stress

Article taken from 9-1-1 Magazine, July 2008
Written by Barry Furey, director of the Raleigh-Wake County (NC) Emergency Communications Center

I don't think you'd get an argument from many people if you said that being a telecommunicator can be a stressful position. After all, more than 240 million 911 calls are made each year in the United States, and countless other seven digit numbers, and ring down lines are answered, as well. This doesn't begin to take into account the amount of radio transmissions handled, units dispatched, and notifications made. Then, of course, there is the curse of the fast-food diet, uncompromising work schedules, and often less than ideal working conditions to contend with.

If all this weren't enough, workloads certainly don't appear to be shrinking, and new technology doesn't seem to save any labor. Wireless telephones, in addition to introducing problems with locating the caller (us old timers actually knew where every 911 call came from) have increasingly placed PSAP (Public Safety Answering Point) personnel directly in contact with the victim. One of my former agencies actually got a call from a victim trapped in the crash of a private plane, and there are numerous examples of heart wrenching calls made by people in the last moments of their lives. Unfortunately, one of the unwritten guarantees of Next Generation 911 is that we will soon be able to both hear and see someone die. This will introduce yet another level of stress once reserved for the first responder. Unfortunately, there will still be hundreds of calls that our personnel will never get the closure on that those on the scene may get because the next call is always waiting.

As I have said more than once, people calling 911 are not having a nice day. There is no smiley face icon on their phone when they are dialing, and we don't have an "easy button" on our end to magically provide a cure for their problems. And, as we all know, the citizen at large would likely have a fit if they got to see our view of their neighborhood, because it is not always pretty or politically correct. To quote one television network, "It's not reality; it's actuality." Over the years we have gotten better in talking about this issue, and many centers now have employee assistance programs, peer counselors, or access to Critical Incident Stress Debriefing teams; because stress can be cumulative or it can be triggered by a single horrific incident.

Unfortunately, what we haven't gotten better about is reducing the amount of stress that is introduced into the workplace by the telecommunicators themselves. While we often admonish them to leave what happens at work at work, we should also be striving to leave what starts at home at home. The imaginary line at the door for checking emotional baggage needs to work in both directions. During the course of my career, I have listened to tapes of many domestic arguments. However, not all of them involved 911 calls. On more than one occasion, I have been confronted by an on-duty employee involved in a heated argument with his or her significant other that would rival any knock-down-drag-out you'd ever want to hear. Apparently, the prospect of memorializing the event of the logging recorder was insignificant in comparison to the need to then-and-there air the entire load of personal dirty laundry. These discussions don't always involve family; they have at various times dealt with issues such as overdrawn bank accounts, squabbles with contractors, and just about anything else that can raise the blood pressure.

But, by and large, family it normally is, and the telecommunicators are not always the protagonist. For the life of me I cannot understand why any clear-thinking "loved one" would call an on-duty dispatcher and inform them of a death in the family or other tragedy that is hundreds of miles away and beyond their capacity to deal with; yet it happens. Perhaps misery truly does love company. Of course, being sequestered for long hours with the same people tends to turn co-workers into an extended family, and much of the same inter-personal dynamics prevalent in blood relationships can also develop here. Some people simply get on each other's nerves. Much of this behavior is probably exacerbated by the fact that we seem to hire an inordinate amount of type A personalities who are also adrenaline junkies. You want opinions? We got 'em! However, the instant dislike may be easier to manage, and far less stressful, than the inevitable romantic entanglements that occur. While some work out, many do not, and precious little fuels the flames more than an "ex" and a "current" who work the same shift; unless it is those situations where it is discovered that the "ex" is not exactly and "ex" by any reasonable definition.

Before these situations crash upon the rocks of contention, we need to send an S.O.S. and recognize the dangers of self originated stress. Enough stress can come into the PSAP through the headset. We don't need any more of it to come in through the door.

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