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Stress Continues to Plague Telecommunicators

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  • Stress Continues to Plague Telecommunicators

    In the course of your responsibilities as a 9-1-1 call taker or emergency dispatcher, have you ever experienced physical or emotional effects such as a fast heart rate, clammy palms, thinking about calls after work, trouble sleeping, or avoiding calls or friends? Have you found yourself wondering in silence if your coworkers are feeling the same way? Well, as a seasoned call taker myself, I can answer “yes” to of all the above and much more. As I look back, it took me most of my 25 years in public safety to be able to admit this fact.

    My epiphany came about a year ago when I attended a year-long public managers course that required me to write an in-depth capstone on a work related topic. If I am being honest, I thought I was choosing an easy topic when I decided to write about stress and its effect on our call takers. However, shame on me for minimizing the impact stress has on our industry. I spent countless hours documenting over 125 pages for my project, and I do not think I even scratched the surface of the research that needs to be done on this subject.

    In doing my research, I was shocked to find very little information on the effects of stress on call takers specifically. Most of the documented research highlighted police, fire and other on-scene responders. In hindsight, this shouldn’t have been surprising. With this realization and my time restraints early in my research, I found myself having to refocus and refine my topic. Are “public safety telecommunicators in New Jersey being affected by stress, and as leaders, are we doing enough to help them?”

    By narrowing my focus, I was able to identify two prior studies: “The Experience of 9-1-1 Telecommunicators,” and “Effects of Stress on 9-1-1 Call-Takers.” Both these studies are well documented and referenced within our industry and gave me tremendous help in survey development. One study asked a series of questions of a single emergency communications center (ECC) and one used a wider base of subjects reaching out to several ECCs. Both studies concluded that as public safety telecommunicators, we are affected by our work as helpers to others so my goal was to try and replicate these finding here in New Jersey.

    I developed a 75-question survey broken down into five categories (demographics, agency impact, stressors, emotions and compassion) to gather information from my participants. I also decided that even though I work in a larger center, to get a true picture I needed to reach out to a diverse range of small to larger ECCs. I am thankful to have received assistance from over 25 centers within New Jersey. Below I will outline the results by category.

    DEMOGRAPHICS

    Asking questions of the participants to determine a baseline of their background and experience within the industry. I found that my service group was closely split between males (55%) and females (45%). Agency management gender also followed the same trend. When asked about position type, they indicated (75%) held the dual title of call taker and telecommunicator. The majority of participants

    (80%) held college degrees and most (70%) were over the age of 30. What was surprising is that participants reporting their years of service (YOS) as one to five years was higher (42%) in the older age

    group. The demographic section seemed to indicate that we are hiring a gender diverse, educated and older workforce. My immediate thought was that, since we are hiring a more mature, educated workforce, they might have developed better stress management tools.

    AGENCY IMPACT

    Questions divided administrative (CEOs) and operational staff to compare understanding of the problem from both perspectives. These questions help start the conversation to determine if we, as leaders, are doing enough to support our staff.

    In all, 25% of the CEOs replied that they didn’t believe stress affected their center’s attendance. However, 30% percent of operational staff replied that they have called out of work to avoid listening to peoples’ problems. They also indicated that although 88% of operational staff are happy with their jobs as helpers, 65% indicate that they are emotionally impacted by that same job.

    One question asked of all respondents was does your agency have an “Employee Assistance Program” (EAP). The administration replied 85% Yes and 15% No and operational staff replied 65% Yes, 12% No and 24% Don’t Know [Figure 1].

    It was not surprising to see agencies that did not have an EAP, but to have a quarter of the participants stating “Don’t Know” was a revelation. Overall, these results support a study done by Hinkle in 2015 that showed we are doing a better job with EAP rollouts but fall short in the follow-up and support.

    Administrators also reported that nearly 30% of them were not advised if their staff had utilized their EAP. I found this very concerning. How can we determine if a program is a success if we don’t see the results? I would suggest that CEO’s be made aware of at least program utilization – not who or why, but just if their staff are reaching out. Without this information, how can we determine if we are reaching them?

    When CEOs were asked about formal training for supervisors to identify stress in employees, only 40% replied yes. This was also consistent with staff indicating (39%) that they felt their agency didn’t support them with the tools to deal with difficult calls. Line staff also indicated (53%) that they didn’t feel comfortable going to their administration when they felt overwhelmed. This may indicate management style issues and a need to evaluate them but remember as leaders, “If we’re not communicating we are not solving problems.” Can any of you remember the old days when being told by supervisors “it’s part of the job” and to “just walk it off” was a valid response? Well, rest assured, some of those dinosaurs still walk amongst us with 30% of telecommunicators indicating they have received this response. On a positive note, they did indicate a comfort level (55%) with discussing troubling calls with supervisors.

    STRESSORS

    For this research, we focused on two categories: job and institutional. The job stressors can be further identified as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), compassion fatigue, STSD and vicarious trauma. Research has shown that these disorders share common causes like repetitiveness and sensory factors. Recognition that call takers are exposed to repetitiveness and sensory factors has served to dispel the idea that we cannot be affected because we’re not on scene. Taking call after call without breaks or resolution (repetitiveness). On the sensory side, we are trained to visually paint pictures of a scene using caller information, sounds heard and experience. However, most times we are never taught what to do with those mental pictures after the call.

    Institutional stressors are those imposed on us during the process of doing our jobs. When we discuss stress within our industry, we commonly look externally at the events that affect our agencies and ignore the internal hurdles. These hurdles like protocols, lack of training, policy and procedure, shift work, work group division, response diversity, organizational fairness, employee support, and communication. Many of the respondents (64%) stated that they could not go to sister field units for closure. It’s generally known that most telecommunicators are type “A” personalities and need closure. In the past, a lot of us would be able to hear the results of our work when responders returned to base and shared the outcome of calls with us. In today’s world of regionalization, I feel this natural coping mechanism will continue to degrade and weigh heavily on telecommunicators.

    Response diversity (a phrase I use to describe the following issue) has a large impact on multi-jurisdictional ECCs, but if not controlled, it can affect the smallest as well. Response diversity is allowing like responding departments to have different dispatch procedures to respond to similar events. Allowing this type of diversity to grow unchecked requires telecommunicators to remember multiple ways to do the same job, increasing potential error rates and stress. Participants responded overwhelmingly (70%) to feeling “bogged down” by the systems in place for performing their jobs. They also indicated (20%) that they will purposely arrive to work earlier to avoid working disciplines they are not comfortable covering.

    EMOTION

    I looked at the emotional roller coaster respondents felt during call taking. When speaking about emotions and the need to separate them, don’t forget the fact that the majority of respondents indicated a dual role as call taker and telecommunicator. So after walking an irate caller through the worst day of their life, the employee now has to possibly send a co-worker into harm’s way while not forgetting to answer the next call.

    Many of the respondents (89%) indicated that they had to change their emotions consistently and (98%) had to manage the emotions of others. They also stated that this emotional management was a critical part and requirement of their jobs (98%).

    COMPASSION

    I measured responses on how respondents felt about doing their job and the effects it has on them. This section clearly showed that we have staff (75%) that are happy with their jobs helping others and (97%) truly believe they’re making a difference. They overwhelmingly (97%) get satisfaction from helping people.

    But as the numbers indicate, job satisfaction is coming at a cost to their health as 32% indicated losing sleep over one or more traumatic victims they have helped. The ability to separate their personal lives from their lives as a helper was found to be difficult by 52%. A section of respondents (31%) stated that they have intrusive or frightening thoughts as a result of their jobs as helpers. A majority (83%) stated that they felt some level of exhaustion with their work. One response that hit close to home was that 30% stated they avoid situations because they might remind them of a frightening experience involving a person they have helped.

    A trend that is growing in our industry is line-level peer groups. Like the name indicates, these groups are made up of fellow telecommunicators who are trained to immediately respond to the floor and help co-workers through difficult situations. In the past, our field responders addressed these issues with critical stress debriefings that usually excluded telecommunicators. I can actually remember being told that I didn’t need to attend because I wasn’t on scene. In my survey, 65% stated that they have never attended a critical stress debrief, but they also indicated (80%) feeling comfortable speaking with peers and 40% stated they had calls that they wish they could have discussed with a peer person. This seems to be a strong path to follow in supporting our telecommunicators.

    In closing, I was relieved to see that our industry is maturing in its diversity at all levels. Earlier in the demographics section, I asked if hiring an older workforce would indicate better coping skills with life experience. The final results didn’t reveal evidence of that, and since my finding almost mirrored the prior studies, it would indicate that life experience has very little impact on managing the stress of a telecommunicator. We are seeing a lot of changes in technology, which will only present more challenges, human resources and peer acknowledgment.

    However, there is a slow but positive shift to understanding stress in our industry.

    Acceptance by leadership, field personnel and the public that the same stressors affecting scene responders does in fact affect PSTs needs to continue. In most cases, the exposure to these stressors is compounded by call volume and repetitiveness without healthy coping skills. As an industry, we can’t Develop and implement programs like EAPs and then let them sit on a shelf collecting dust. This type of failure is made evident with 24% of respondents not knowing if they even had a program.

    In my own observation, with almost 25 years in public safety serving as a deputy sheriff, EMT and public safety telecommunicator, I have to say some of the most difficult memories to shake have come from my time as a PST. From the findings of this survey, I believe my personal observations share something with most of the respondents as shown in figure 2, with 70% of them indicating being emotionally affected by their jobs as helpers. This number alone shows we need to do much more, sooner rather than later.




    This article is an overview of my research and hopefully sheds light on the fact that much more work needs to be done to help our first responders. As I stated previously, my goal was to reproduce the results of the two earlier studies here in New Jersey and to ask if we are doing enough to help.

    The good news is “I did it,” unfortunately the BAD news is “I did it.” The results show that telecommunicators in my home state are being impacted from their work as helpers, and, although the prior studies are several years old, the change is less than expected. As leaders at all levels, we need to continue to work with our people, accept the reality of our jobs and improve as an industry. If we don’t, who will?

    What I would like for everyone to take away from this study though is you’re not alone, and it’s OK to ask for help. •



    Dennis L. Snyder Jr., ENP, CPM, is 9-1-1 Systems Coordinator, CTO/Instructor, Morris County (N.J.) Department of Law and Public Safety, Communications Division.


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  • #2
    Telecommunicator mental health is quickly becoming a passion of mine. I have heard of so many PSTs taking their own life, I have personally had two friends that were PSTs in other centers fall to suicide. My heart aches for them and for all of us.

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    • #3
      We often forget about our needs in this industry. We spend our days at work meeting the needs of everyone we deal with on the phone and radio, we often forget to take care of ourselves. We then go home and have to meet the needs of our family and pets.

      It is heartbreaking when anyone falls to committing suicide. I too know of others that have committed suicide, one was a dispatcher in our center. For quite some time we were impacted by that.

      This is a very good article. We are now at a point where more needs to be covered in the PST7 course to prepare new hires for their future.

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