9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Emotional Wellness: A Personal Account

Excerpts taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine May 2006
Written by Angela Bowen, she has more than 18 years' experience in public safety communications and at the time of the article was communications training coordinator for the Georgia Public Safety Training Center.

My primary job is to educate newly hired communications officers on the basic responsibilities and operational procedures of their job. During a one-week course, we spend four hours discussing types of crisis, common causes of crisis and dealing with suicidal people and other callers in emotional turmoil Every session starts with a discussion about the importance of taking care of oneself. I tell these eager new communications officers that, if they are not careful to deal with the stress and emotional strain inherent in the job, a day will come when they realize the job has taken over their lives. I feel especially qualified to make that statement, because, like many people who have been in the business a while, I've been there and done that.

Special People

Only a certain, special type of person is drawn into the fraternity of emergency communications. These people typically exhibit some of the same personality traits, regardless of geography, tenure, background, race or size of agency. Dispatchers usually have an innate ability to block out painful experiences, make jokes about the most gruesome of calls and deal with death and destruction as if they were video games.

However, those who would become great have another trait that merely good dispatcher do not. They can deal effectively with the emotional toll this job can take on even the most callous people.

Most of us who see ourselves as effective and successful have one thing in common: we don't let the ugliness of our jobs affect us emotionally. We block out the feelings of inadequacy we experience when a baby dies, despite our efforts to instruct a parent through CPR. We do not acknowledge the fear we feel when an officer fails to answer his radio during a foot chase. We make jokes about human tragedy so we do not have to acknowledge our sorrow. We call these actions "defense mechanisms."

We refuse to allow our true feelings to show. After all, we do not want to appear weak. This job is not the kind that lets us hold up a "pause" card whenever things get too stressful. We do not have time to debrief after every call. We want to be seen as rough and tough by our co-workers, able to deal with anything that comes up. So we ignore our emotions and seek other ways to address our anger, fear, pain and frustration. This results in dysfunctional relationships within our centers.

To make matters worse, we carry that emotional shutdown into our personal relationships, creating a vicious cycle. When our personal life is not what we want it to be, we throw ourselves into our jobs, working overtime, and getting even more involved in the very cause of our unhappiness. That leads to more personal problems, and the cycle intensifies until we reach a breaking point.

Most of us never hear about the importance of properly addressing the emotions we will all experience as a part of our jobs. We may be sent to debriefings after a critical incident, but most of us will be subject to that type of debriefing only once or twice during our entire careers. Public saftely is the only career field that views things like fatal shootings, house fires and serious accidents as routine. It takes a lot for us to classify something a critical incident. Line-of-duty deaths, high-profile crimes and calls with massive media attention are the types of calls that generally lead to critical-incident debriefing. It's a marvelous tool that has helped thousands of communications officers overcome the emotional impact of some very serious calls. But this type of debriefing is not practical for everyone, every day. We must do a better job at dealing with the day-to-day stresses we all face.

Get a Life

We have access to a number of healthy, positive ways to reduce stress and achieve emotional wellness. One of the best is to realize and admith this fact: our agencies were functioning before we got there and will continue to function long after we're gone. Too often, we throw ourselves into our jobs, become excellent calltakers or dispatchers and start to believe we are the only ones who can do what we do as well as we do it. To be emotionally well, we have to have a life outside of work that doesn't involve work at all. Turn the scanner off at home. Avoid watching TV shows or movies that reinforce the love we feel for our jobs. Establish friendships wiht people outside of the profession. Take up a hobby that has nothing to do with public safety. Play with your dog, go to church, take a yoga class or read a trashy novel. Do anything with your downtime, as long as it is healthy, legal and unrelated to public safety. In other words, get a life!

Personal Accountability

We make too many excuses for what we do, think and say. Most of the time, we start out blaming someone else's actions, thoughts and words. We must take more responsibility for our own actions and behavior. No one can make you say or do things you really don't want to. As a mother of two daughters, I know that no matter how hard we try, we cannot control another human being's actions, thoughts or words in a free society. We can control only the way we react to other people. No one is to blame for our personal decisions except the person looking back at us in the mirror.

One of my mentors has a nameplate on his desk that says "I'm Responsible." He doesn't need anything to remind him of his name, so he uses this office accessory to remind him every day that he is responsible for what happens to him and his employees, co-workers and superiors. We must remember that, although we are not responsible for the decisions our co-workers make, we are responsible for our reactions to them. Imagine how much more pleasant the typcial radio room would be if all personnel worried only about themselves and how they were supposed to act, rather than about what everyone else was doing. Accept responsibility for your own actions and see how much happier you become.

Talk It Out

I have heard many excuses about why peer-counseling programs are not used more often. The most common reason is these programs are not trusted. It is hard to be completely honest with someone who knows you and works with you every day. People are afraid the thoughts, emotions and fears they share with a peer counselor will somehow make it back to their supervisors or managers. Most peer counselors are highly ethical and truly interested in helping their co-workers. But, if the people who need this service don't trust the people providing it, they may turn to alcohol or other dangerous behavior to relieve their pent-up stress.

Talking about our feelings and the emotional impact of our job is one of the safest and most productive ways of relieving stress and avoiding burnout. A simple venting session is all it takes.

Some of us have significant others who work in emergency communications. These partners can understand everything we are going through, because they experience the same things. Others have partners in some other field of public safety. They have some idea of the pressures of the job, because they experience similar stresses on their jobs. We are the lucky ones. We can vent when we get home, not experience anything in return and not have someone try to make us feel better.

Some of our co-workers are not lucky enough to have someone to speak to openly about their work. They may have loved ones who try to make them feel better or who suggest finding another line of work. Yeah, right. For those of us who were "born" to do this job, finding another line of work just is not an option.

This is where true friendship comes in handy. A true friend will offer a shoulder to cry on or an ear to bend when you need to vent. She will offer advice or suggestions only when asked and won't be upset if you don't listen to her. Whether it is through a well-established peer-counseling program or a loving partner or friend, talking about the emotional trauma we go through everyday is critial to emotional wellness.

If these are not options or if your situation is more than an amateur can handle, seek professional counseling. It is extremely liberating to be able to say anything you want to a complete stranger who is bound by law and ethics to keep it to himself. When I finally broke down and sought counseling, I told things to the counselor that I would never dream of verbalizing to another living soul.

It is important that you develop a rapport with the person you are seeing. Some people go through numerous counselors before finding someone with whom they are comfortable. Just don't expect a professional counselor to agree with everything you say or tell you what you want to hear.


I am not qualified to tell anyone if he or she needs to be on any type of medication. I can tell you that some people benefit from the medications available from mental-health professionals for the treatment of depression and other psychological disorders. These medications do not make the world all peaches and cream, but they can make it easier to deal with by helping to even out mood swings, bouts of depression and other conditions.

Take Care of Yourself

No other job in the world required more compassion, control and emotional flexibility than emergency communications. We become so focused on controlling our emotions that we bury those feelings, become inflexible and hardened to the human condition. This leads to decreased satisfaction, increased hostility toward the public and our co-workers and eventually to burnout and more emotional problems.

Exercise, eat right, find a true friend and confidant, accept responsibility for your own actions and embrace all that life has to offer. You will be happier and more productive than you ever thought possible.

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