Emergency communications and stress: Recognition and mitigation

For call takers and dispatchers, by dealing with stress in the moment as well as over the long-term, we can improve our physical and mental health

Editor’s Note: I’m very pleased to welcome Michelle Perin to our ever-growing roster of writers. I met Michelle in person for the first time at the annual Public Safety Writers Association meeting in Las Vegas a few months ago, but I’d already read her work in publications such as Law Enforcement Technology and Police Magazine. Michelle will be writing here on PoliceOne about police technologies, patrol issues, and other areas of interest, but because she spent seven and a half years as a police telecommunications operator with the City of Phoenix (Ariz.) Police Department, she’s uniquely qualified to write about the emergency communicator’s perspective. Check out her debut column on an issue which affects cops as much as it does that group of largely-unsung public safety professionals.

People are always saying they can’t imagine how stressful emergency communications work must be. We’re always trying to convince ourselves and others we can handle the work and are definitely not stressed out. Stress seems to be viewed as a negative byproduct of our job and our ability to deal with the demands of screaming citizens, amped up officers, and organizational mandates such as shift work, overtime, and what feels like irrational, unexpected, and impromptu changes in policy and procedure.

Stress is not a negative or a positive. It’s something that occurs regularly and as first responders, to maintain longevity in this occupation, we must be able to mitigate the amounts of stress that occurs regularly.

Stress happens. It occurs from the beginning of an emergency communicator’s profession, even before he or she hears that first call or dispatches that first unit. Due to this, stress-reduction techniques should be taught from the beginning. Understanding what stress is and how to handle it should be a module in initial 911 call taker / dispatcher training. Teaching new operators what to expect and normalizing the effect of communication’s work will produce safer, happier, more balanced and satisfied employees.

What is Stress?
Stress is a given. It is not an indication of failure or a person’s inability to handle their job. Mild anxiety actually helps us do our job to an extent.

Think about the hyper-focus you feel when an officer puts out that pursuit or emergency code. You sit up straighter. Your hearing becomes crisper. Your body is responsive and alert.  This focus is the result of an internal process based on our perception of an external event. Although each of us has a different internal process, what is similar is the ability to understand the physiological changes involved in our work and techniques we can utilize to mitigate the damage. 

In her book 911 Wellness: Stress Less Workbook, Sue Pivetta states there are two types of stress. The first — external — stems from a lack of control over external influences. The second — internal — is “how we view our ability to deal with, change, or make peace with challenging events or situations."

Both external and internal stress are individualized and based on our perceptions. People have varying ability to respond to a challenging environment. It’s easy to pinpoint those dispatchers/9-1-1 operators who seem to thrive on the chaos and those who seem perilously close to shutting down completely. To some extent, we have to push through the almost paralyzing reactions when we first start our careers in emergency work. It’s the moving through that makes us grow and thrive. Those who cannot are encouraged to seek less stressful positions.

Signs of Stress
Pivetta explains the signs of stress. She reminds us to be aware of when signs indicate our work is damaging our health.  

Psycho-physiological responses: your body’s reaction to stress, including tight and aching muscles, unsteady hands, nervous tics, restlessness, frequent colds, pain, upset stomach, sweating, strong startle response, headaches, high blood pressure, ulcers, colitis and heart disease to name a few. 

Behavioral-Emotional effects: the mental strain of stress and our anxious reactions, including hyperactivity, fast walking and talking, nervous habits, poor memory, inattentiveness, excessive worry, irritability, crying, obsessive thoughts, and compulsive actions.

Tiredness and lack of energy: telltale signs the stress is getting to you such as general lack of interest, boredom, humorlessness, sleeping a lot or insomnia, apathy, and normal pattern changes.

Although these signs are a normal reaction to the inherent stress of emergency communication, they should be temporary. Unfortunately, they become a much bigger problem if techniques aren’t taught to mitigate stress in the moment, as well as, on a regular basis.

In the Moment
Many techniques can be used as you face external and internal stresses. They don’t require you to leave your seat or to neglect your duties. Here are three examples:

Breathe: When faced with a challenging environment, we tend to change our breathing patterns. Our breath often becomes fast and shallow. One of the quickest ways to offset stress is to concentrate on breathing deeply through the nose and exhaling fully through the mouth. This helps increase oxygen to the brain, lowers heart rate and reduces muscle tension.

Smile: Buddhist monks practice what is called the Inner Smile. This is created by slightly raising the corner of your lips while adopting the inner stance of a smile. Try smiling big and feel the change inside. Eventually, you can recreate the inner shift of a smile without the outward appearance of a deranged clown.

Allowing Others: Emergency communications operators don’t want to give up control. If you don’t believe me, try taking over for a dispatcher who is working emergency traffic. We seem to have an inherent need to finish what we started. Or, like a child who refuses to go to sleep, we’re afraid we might miss something. Regardless, we need to allow others to step in and help us. If you’re offered a break, take it.

Reduce Stress on a Regular Basis
Once you are away from the console, there are ways to reduce the physiological effects of stress.

Meditation and journaling help by calming the mind and allowing thoughts to free flow. Often, we hyper-obsess over an incident ruminating over and over about what we could have done differently. Performing a meditation around the event or jotting it down can help us let it go.

Exercise is another great stress reducer. Even getting outside for a 10 minute walk will help. Interact with a pet. There’s nothing more calming that a pet’s unconditional love.

Write a gratitude list. Our work is 99-percent negative. External and internal situations create feelings of lack of control and over time bitterness. Take a moment to write out all the things you like about what you do.

After all, it takes a special person to be an emergency communications operator.

For employees, dealing with stress in the moment and over the long-term, we can improve our physical and mental health. We can increase our focus and our ability to do our jobs well and make our work environment more pleasant. For managers, helping employees manage stress will increase job satisfaction, skill level, performance and decrease absenteeism and burnout. Taught from the very beginning and we’re given tools we can use for a life-time.  

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