9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Top Ten Things You Should Know About Dispatcher Stress

So, what's the big deal about public safety dispatcher stress anyway? We who have worked the job all have our "horror stories." Some of us may even be aware of some larger price we pay in detachment from society, increased cynicism, and loss of ideals of the type which caused us to go into a "helping" profession in the first place. Certainly, we read the papers and watch TV. We know that there are dispatchers out there who go "off the deep end" and wind up screaming at customers or otherwise coming unglued. But doesn't making "Dispatcher Stress" a continuing topic of discussion just raise the heat on a pot of stew that is already simmering?

Well, maybe. There is an element of "let sleeping dogs lie" when it comes to dealing with dispatcher stress. The vast majority of public safety dispatchers will indeed adequately survive the rigors of their job without going rooftop shopping with an AK-47. However, how many public safety dispatchers do you know who go to work with the idea of doing an "adequate" job? Public safety dispatchers will absolutely go to the mat for total strangers. Over the years, it has been one of my goals to get them to work at least as hard for themselves! To that end, delving into the field of dispatcher stress, while not absolutely necessary, is a good way for dispatchers to deliver more than "adequate" service to themselves and their families.

In this modern era of Top Ten lists, here are ten things a public safety dispatcher and their supervisors should know about stress:

10. Dispatcher stress is not always caused by the same things as police officer stress.

Some of the stressors are similar, have comparable manifestations, and may arise from the same precipitating incidents; but, there are many which are unique to the profession. What could have been a fairly routine run for field units could have been extremely stressful for the dispatcher and vice-versa. Additionally, the dispatcher most often does not have the opportunity to physically discharge stress and anxiety-related energy, and must remain at the console awaiting the next soul in need. Often, there are not even debriefing options for dispatchers because the concept of dispatcher stress is not as fully recognized as that of stress of field workers.

9. Most dispatchers identify poor communications within the department as a prime cause of stress.

Perhaps it is because these people are communications experts. Or maybe it happens, because, often, the people making decisions about their jobs have never done their job and really don't know what their jobs are. But it is clear to me, having asked thousands of dispatchers to identify their job related stressors, that managers often need to pay more attention to intra-departmental communications. Dispatchers identify failure to listen to the line troops when making policy, inconsistent messages from "above" (field hears one thing, office hears another; one shift does things this way, the next shift does things that way), and downright silly rules as being among their most distressing job related issues.

A big area of intra-departmental communications difficulty for dispatchers has to do with job definition and role expectations. A favorite exercise of mine, which I have used for many years as a consultant, is to ask the Chiefs, to sketch out both a set of role responsibilities for their dispatchers and a schematic drawing showing where dispatchers fit in the chain of communication within their department. I then ask the dispatchers to list their primary tasks, first by order of importance and then by order of frequency. I also ask them to sketch out just who it is they take orders from. The disparities are usually astounding. The upper echelon see the written job description as the norm. The line dispatchers, on the other hand, list so many tedious, non-essential and/or unrelated tasks that take up most of their time; and they ususally demonstrate that they take (often conflicting) orders from dozens of people.

8. The work environment can take just as much out of you as the work!

Among the many work environment issues are lighting, noise, ventilation, windows, security and ergonomics. If your chairs do not work well with your computer screen placements, which do not work well with your lighting, this is not without consequence for your workforce. Further, if your chairs do not interact well with the bodies that are sitting in them, the negative possibilities are even more pronounced.

If your communications center personnel engage in "thermostat wars," it signifies a problem with the work environment. If they regularly complain of headaches which are not keyed to volume or type of call, but merely to being in the communications center, maybe it is time to examine the lighting and the HVAC systems.

Perhaps it is the influence of TV, or the idea that some of the more dramatic aspects of public safety work are the things which attracted us to the field in the first place, but we often fall into the trap of thinking that job related stress in this field is limited to "big stuff." The fact is that a slow leak leads just as surely to an empty tank as a huge hole. And while the slow leak is harder to find (unless you look for it periodically), it is much easier to fix. The cumulative effects of the "little" stressors not only add up to produce their own damage; they drain us of valuable interpersonal resources we may need to deal with the "big" dramatic stress-makers.

7. Dispatching is a sedentary job.

You must make yourself exercise regularly. Routine simple exercise provides cardiovascular benefit and positive influence on mood and energy levels at no financial cost. Dispatchers will often say things like, "I don't have the time." They feel that the time it takes is too high a cost for whatever immediate benefits they can see. The key word here is immediate. Dispatchers are very outcome-oriented people who do their best work when two critical aspects of emergency communications are being met: speed and accuracy. This can be a real pitfall when applied to your personal life. If you are looking for immediate speedy return on your investment of time in whatever exercise program you undertake (including just getting out and walking around the building a few times), you are going to be disappointed. The cost/benefit analysis that you need to bring to the personal exercise question involves "opportunity cost." "What is the cost of not doing the exercise?" is the better question to be asking here.

6. Dispatchers' diets are generally abysmally awful.

There are several reasons that you will find large jars of antacid tablets in communications centers. Dispatchers' diets are prime among these reasons. Eating lots of fast foods, fried food, and vending machine food is really asking a lot of your stomach. Additionally, doing these things at times when your stomach is ill-prepared to deal with them exacerbates the problem. Your body has a number of "circadian" ("around the day") cycles that influence, among other things, alertness, body temperature and digestion. Fighting the way your body is "hard-wired" is generally a losing battle. Night-shift no-no's include foods high in spice or fat, fried foods, whole milk, tomato juice, foods with caffeine in them and "heavy" foods like pizza. The better (and ususally less expensive) choice is to pack healthier and more reasonable food. Once again, as in the case of exercise, this entails a little more effort. But the long term payoff is worth it. And, whenever possible, get meal relief! Eating at your work console is never recommended.

5. Variety is the spice of life.

While we'd like you to avoid spice in your diet on the night shift, we'd like you to add some spice to your life in other ways. Developing a "life outside the job" is extremely important. Like some of the other areas upone which we've touched, this one requires some effort. Going to school, committing to community activities, or simply engaging in a hobby is often hard to do because of your hours. Nonetheless, these things are important because they help to offset the forces that engender cynicism. If your job has many inherent frustrations associated with it and most of what you do with your life is job related, what do you think the influence in your outlook and mood will be?

4. Get to know the other players in your sandbox and then "play nice."

Dispatchers and field personnel often find themselves at each others throats. Key to defusing the potential is a program for cross-familiarization. This includes ride-alongs, where dispatchers find that sometimes the reason that the officer asks for a repeat of the message transmitted 10 seconds ago is that there are noises and distractions in the field of which the communications center is unaware. This will reduce the incidence of dispatcher's automatically assuming that the officer is deaf or lazy.

Similarly, the officer who visits the communications center will have an opportunity to see that simply coming on the air and transmitting a message does not mean that that message was heard. This will reduce the incidence of the officer's assuming that the dispatcher is stupid or incompetent. In this case, familiarity breeds respect.

3. Expectations can be killers.

If you approach this job with an expectation that you will be doing dramatic life saving stuff every day, it takes only a week or so to be somewhat deflated. If you hold the expectation that you must do everything right all the time, you are setting yourself up for frustration. If you anticipate that your family, the field units, and even your bosses will know what your job is, you are, unfortunately, asking for trouble.

Public safety dispatchers are noted for having a positive attitude towards the delivery of service. You can go overboard with this, to the point where you hold yourself to a "no mistakes" standard which is usually reserved for more highly trained and definitely more highly paid professionals: surgeons and airline pilots. I'm not saying that you ratchet down your own performance expectations so that you can feel better. I am saying that you should be cautious not to hold unrealistic expectations for yourself or those around you. That is a sure way to increase your stress and shorten your career.

2. Competence in the task at hand reduces stress.

In dispatcher stress training, it is useful to have trainers who have done the job; they also need to have specific expertise beyond platform skills and good intentions. The instructor in a dispatcher stress program needs to have credibility among the dispatcher-students and a working knowledge of human biology and psychodynamics. Familiarity with circadian rhythms, dispatcher ergonomics, dispatcher belief systems, common dispatch and field personnel attitudes, and dispatch operations are just a few of the things this instructor must have in order to do the job.

Being conversant in dispatching as a profession is difficult enough to find in a trainer. Having professional fluency in dispatcher stress is even more rare.

1. You act and feel according to what you think.

A good deal of dispatcher stress is, by virtue of the nature of the job, unavoidable. But there is even more dispatcher stress that in unavoidable because dispatchers' thinking makes it that way. We said in #2 that a good stress instructor needs to be skilled in dispatchers beliefs, attitudes, and psychodynamics. Here's why: Dispatchers often need to be retrained in their thinking. The way that we think has enormous influence over the way we feel. Our thinking influences our mood. Training for new thinking and beliefs requires that dispatchers suspend cynicism long enough to allow new ideas into their psyches long enough to get a foothold.

In the examples given in #4, field personnel and dispatchers, by virtue of their mutual ignorance of the others' working environment, each start to formulate very strong beliefs about the other. It doesn't make any difference if these beliefs are factually incorrect. If it is believed to be real, it is real in its consequence. By allowing these beliefs to develop and then by holding on to them, we perpetuate an unnecessarily negative work environment. This environment is one in which there is little respect and a strong undercurrent of very basic fear.

Equipping personnel to identify and dispel these counterproductive and essentially untrue beliefs; and to replace them with more accurate beliefs goes a long way to reducing job stress. And just as there are stress producing belief systems with regard to field personnel, dispatchers also hold distressing beliefs about their co-workers, bosses, families, the callers to their systems, and, especially themselves. Altering these in a positive way takes just a little time and money and makes life easier for all.

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