9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Friday, June 6, 2014

Stress & The Invisible First Responders

Taken from 9-1-1 Magazine.com, July 7, 2013
Written by Brooklyn Mundo, former 911 dispatcher who became an advocate for the psychological well-being of 911 calltakers and dispatchers while studying psychology at Rollins College.  She recently presented the results of her research on the psychological effects of working as a 9-1-1 operator to the Seminole County (Fla.) Sheriff's Department and is submitting her research to scientific journals for publication.  Brooklyn recently graduated from Rollins College and started a new job as a career development center specialist at Seminole State College of Florida.

Most people don't consider that behind every shooting, car accident, bank robbery and kidnapping is the story of the 9-1-1 dispatcher who is, in essence, the first responder on the scene.  Considered even less is the psychological impact of this job.

After about two years as a 9-1-1 dispatcher in an emergency communications center in Central Florida, I began to experience weight gain, panic attacks and paranoia.  Even though my mind had adapted to the day-to-day adrenaline rush of vacariously encountering traumatic situations, I couldn't escape the physiological and emotional consequences.  As a psychology major in the Hamilton Holt School at Rollins College, I was learning concepts that described what I was experiencing, and conversations with my coworkers revealed that I wasn't the only 9-1-1 operator suffering the effects of being in a continual state of crisis.

Because of my psychology classes, I was able to apply an introspective analysis of my experience that helped me recognize the impact the job was having on me.  I realized that I was experiencing increased levels of anxiety and even paranoia in my day-to-day life.  Routine tasks started to make me flash back to certain calls.  I could no longer watch movies with action sequences because they would remind me of real events.  I felt fearful in my everyday life.  I finally started calling my experiences what they were: traumatic.

When you do this job, you work in a constant state of crisis and it becomes difficult to leave that behind at the call center.  As a 9-1-1 telecommunicator, we are expected to be there for people.  I had genuine empathy but I also developed coping mechanisms for self-preservation, a form of detached empathy that made it difficult to experience real empathy in my life outside of work.  It definitely affected my relationships.  Most 9-1-1 call-takers and dispatchers don't realize their own psychological distress because the heightened sense of adrenaline and crisis has become their "new normal" so to speak, but I was aware that this was happening because of what I was learning at Rollins.

An assignment for my communications research course gave me the opportunity to write an analysis of the research on 9-1-1 dispatchers.  After pouring over hundreds of peer-reviewed journal articles, I found only three studies directly related to the profession.  Being able to learn about and discuss my experiences at school was enlightening and comforting.  It provided an outlet.

As I headed into my final semester, I proposed an independent research project which gave me the opportunity to do some research on how 9-1-1 dispatchers were coping with the stress of the job and hopefully add some new information about the profession to the scientific community.  There has been a lot of research on police officers, but almost none on emergency communications dispatchers.  I needed somewhere to start.  So I compared data on police officers with data I'd collected on 9-1-1 dispatchers.  My hunch was that the study would reveal that both populations deal with similar stress levels.

My faculty advisor on the project, Rollins Professor and chair of the Psychology department John Houston, was both surprised and intrigued by the ambitious nature of the research.  He believed that my unique background as a 9-1-1 telecommunicator and as a psychology major gave me a special perspective on how a group like this doesn't face physical danger but experiences vicarious stress.  Recognizing the value of this study, the dean of Rollins' evening school provided grant money to cover some of the costs of the surveys.  What began as a personal journey toward understanding what was happening in my own head began to grow into a project that the surrounding community wanted to invest in and learn about.

As part of my research, I asked a group of 9-1-1 dispatchers to take an online survey in their free time.  The survey had four parts, two of which were similar to those given to police officers in previous research studies, one which looked at stress and distress when compared to the normal population, and the final part covered personality factors to see if certain factors were related to coping with the job.  With a response rate of 68 percent (which is pretty good in social research terms), the survey yielded a wealth of data, which a few of my classmates helped me analyze.

We found that there was not a statistically significant difference between the data collected on police officers and the data collected on these 9-1-1 dispatchers.  Both groups experienced similar levels of stress.  Furthermore, call-takers and dispatchers experience a higher number of critical incidents on a daily basis than officers out on the road, but there's no scale that can measure how the stress of handling phone calls of traumatic events compares to the stress of the face-to-face events that officers experience.  This study has opened the door for many other research opportunities, which is exactly what I wanted.  One of my primary goals was to raise awareness outside of the law enforcement community about the importance of the 9-1-1 dispatcher's role in law enforcement and the impact it has on the faithful people doing the job every day.  I also wanted people to recognize that 9-1-1 call-takers and dispatchers are the first responders to emergencies but no one thinks about them.

More research is needed to gain more understanding about the phenomenon of high turnover and psychological distress in call-takers and dispatchers.  Many dispatchers leave the profession for reasons unrelated to stress, such as going to the police academy or, mostly among female dispatchers, starting a family.  It may be helpful to survey dispatchers who resign from the position to get feedback about what made them leave the job.

My hope is that by demonstrating that 9-1-1 dispatchers face similar levels of stress to that of police officers, they would be considered in high-risk jobs and therefore be eligible for similar benefits, such as access to counseling and time off for psychological reasons.  Counseling is available to call-takers and dispatchers, but it is usually based on optional, external referral only for full-time employees.  Although there is a great need for further research before implementing any program, my hope would be that eventually law enforcement agencies would staff a police psychologist and mandate quarterly counseling appointments for all call-takers and dispatchers.  Who couldn't benefit from an hour with a counselor every few months, especially in this profession?

I am also concerned that call-takers and dispatchers are not utilizing the current counseling available because it is optional and external.  There is a culture in law enforcement that subconsciously says, "It takes a special person to do this job and if you need help, then maybe you aren't tough enough."  That is entirely untrue!  Indeed, law enforcement call-takers and officers are cut from a different cloth, but I believe there are some positive systems that can be implemented to help maintain that cloth and keep it from wearing out faster than its time.  It may be more cost effective for agencies to staff a police psychologist than to hire 12-20 new dispatchers every year and have such a high turnover rate due to those unmanaged negative aspects of the job.

What should call-takers and dispatchers do if they find themselves experiencing similar issues with anxiety, depression and generally high psychological distress?

Well, I'll be working to spread the word about you unsung heroes, but in the meantime, do some honest self-evaluation.  I challenge you to meet with a counselor at least once since most agencies plan for a few free sessions.  Take that first step!

Here's the bottom line:  Before any agency will implement any kind of mandatory program to help its employees cope with the job, it must have proof that such an intervention is necessary.  9-1-1 call-takers and dispatchers must have the courage to speak up and acknowledge that their high stress level isn't normal.  Every person is different, but making an effort to utilize the current counseling offered by each agency is a great place to start.  You, as call-takers and dispatchers, are the voice for many people in their time of crisis and now is the time to be the voice for the sake of your own heart and psychological well-being.

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