9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Friday, May 1, 2009

Mental Health: Safeguarding the Future of Public Safety Communications

Taken from Emergency Number Professional Magazine, April 2009
Written by Robert T. Smith, Telecommunicator II-Trainer for Wilson County ECC (Wilson, NC)
He has experience dispatching for Police, City and County Fire Departments, Sheriff's Department and EMS.

At any point in time people across the nation will need emergency assistance, either from law enforcement, the fire department or EMS. Public safety communications personnel are trained to provide life saving instructions to sometimes hysterical callers while sending the proper field units to provide emergency assistance. When the public calls they expect a trained professional on the line that can fix all the problems and tell them exactly what to do. This demand placed on any person can be a daunting task and create intense pressure on an already tense job. Living in a world where technology is rapidly changing it's important to remember the one thing that is constant in the world of public safety dispatch -- our employees and their well being.

Keeping Control
Public safety communications by its very nature is challenging; sometimes taken for granted is the amount of stress put on communications center employees. With the addition of phase two cell phone capabilities, CAD and GIS, just keeping up with the technology can be a hard task for any communications center. The telecommunicator is always in a situation where he/she will be listening to someone who desperately needs help; however, other than sending help, they can't physically do anything about the situation. Some people have a hard time adjusting to the idea of only being able to send help. This in turn puts an extreme amount of stress on the person and the communications center. It is human nature to bring something personal to the calls that we as telecommunicators take. When we take the call of a baby who is not breathing and are providing CPR instructions we can't help but think of our children or a loved one. When we hear the desperation and fear in a caller's voice because she is hiding in her house and someone is breaking in, it's hard for any human being not to become emotionally involved to a certain point. These emotions are a normal part of doing the job, however, it's important that we not lose sight of our goals and maintain control of the call. The citizens we serve are calling in a time when everything is going wrong and it is difficult to get the information responders need if we are unable to keep control of the call.

Support Systems
Some telecommunicators have a need to save the world with every call they take. While they mean well, the goal of saving everyone is unrealistic and sets them up for failure. With public safety work that just isn't possible. Not everyone can be saved by the 911 telecommunicator, law enforcement, the fire department or EMS. This failure can be devestating for any telecommunicator who feels it is their responsibility, and some may not be able to cope with the thought of losing someone during a call. It is necessary to have a support system in place for employees who have had a hard time accepting this, and are working through it. This possibly can be resolved by a senior telecommunicator who could mentor and guide the employee through dealing with tough calls. For a new team member it means everything to know that your team has your back and they are willing to help if problems arise. This can have an increase on the moral of the shift. We in public safety communications should strive at all times to do the best job we can with the information we have.

It is important to notice our employees at work. Are they distant or quiet? Do they seem upset? Has their workload become nonexistent compared to the rest of the team, forcing other people to pick up the slack dropped by a particular employee? While it is all too easy to blame the employee for being lazy, or not being a team player, no one knows what is going on in their life outside of work that may be giving them problems. So many times we all have problems that we bring to work accidently or we have no choice and have to bring them with us. No one can truly understand what's going on in their team members' life so it's important to try not to judge. Maybe it can be as simple as to ask them what's going on in their life or if something is bothering them. It may be something that can be helped by letting the person talk to someone on shift, in turn saving a lot of headache for the administration. Some may require or want to talk with professionals such as therapists and stress debriefs. While it may not be feasible to provide the kind of help that an employee may need, the fact of asking and showing a caring attitude can help.

Communication can have a profound effect on any employee and show results in many ways. Team meetings are an excellent way to solve problems and build moral in a communications center. Having a meeting in small groups may prompt more communication and allow all the team to vent frustrations. The most important thing is attempt to address the issue, don't just ignore the problem; this will only prolong the inevitable and create a bigger problem. Our employees are the future of public safety dispatch. By handling stress appropriately, employees' moral and productivity can be richly increased. This will, in turn, create an atmosphere built on trust appreciation and dedication to our field units and our citizens. Every supervisor and administrator wants their employees to be happy.

Professional Help
Recognizing stress in the workplace is vital when attempting to increase the productivity of any organization. While it may not be possible or feasible for communications centers to provide professional help in dealing with the stress of the job. It may be necessary for telecommunicators to seek the help of a therapist or mental health professional. Sometimes speaking with a co-worker isn't enough and the stress can build in ways that only a mental health professional can understand and assist with. Just having a non-biased third party can reap great benefits, and it can give any telecommunicator someone to vent to without being judged.

Peer Facilitator
Having a trained peer facilitator on shift is an excellent way to identify stress in the communications center. The training involved with being a peer facilitator can prove vital when telecommunicators have taken some dramatic and highly stressful situations. Providing this training on shift will possibly give anyone going through a difficult time with a call the chance to take care of a potential problem before it gets out of control. However, the confidentiality should be the foremost concern for the employee and the trained peer facilitator. Doing so will ensure that the therapeutic process doesn't have any negative outside influences. While having a trained peer facilitator may not be an option for many communications centers there are a number of resources available for telecommunicators that are in a potential crisis. There are many municipalities and communications centers across the nation that have access to critical incident stress management teams. These teams are trained and can recognize potential problems with fellow co-workers and possibly provide assistance. Usually, most administrators have contacts for the stress management teams and can call on them whenever needed. This training, while vital for high priority incidents, it is important for all communications center personnel to use these resources if they feel there may be a problem in the center. There are many options for communications centers to provide help for their employees in a time of need. While all of these options have their benefits it's important to remember that they all aren't for everyone. Each administrator should research what options are available for them and then seek the help their employee or employees may need. Taking care of our telecommunicators today will ensure that we provide a dedicated, highly trained and capable to carry on our great profession to the future.

Healthy Lifestyle
Most municipalities are also involved in promoting a healthy lifestyle for their employees. This usually is in the form of wellness programs with medical checks, and promoting all around healthy activities. Working out can not only make our employees healthier, it also will give an outlet for their relief of stress. Intramural sports are also a great way for employees to have this outlet to relieve stress. While it may not be possible for communications center personnel to participate in an intramural sports program, the administration should strive to encourage participation in whatever team building activities are available. Giving employees this activity on their day off can not only relieve stress, but promotes teamwork, a healthy, active lifestyle and will increase the moral of any organization.

Generally speaking, I believe all employees want to succeed in their chosen profession. They want to do the job right, and pick up the tasks quickly. When this doesn't happen, stress put on the employee can develop into serious issues with the job and create problems amongst co-workers. Public safety telecommunicators are no exception; dealing with life or death situations and the stress of making quick decisions that will affect other people's lives, can be overwhelming. I believe we have a duty to our community, our field units and ourselves to provide the most qualified and mentally healthy people for the job. In public safety telecommunications, we as telecommunicators are highly trained to provide professional service while being caring, compassionate and empathetic. In order to safeguard the future of public safety communications, we should strive to approach the well-being of our fellow teammates as we do our training in order to provide a healthier and happier dispatch environment.

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