Health

Burnout in the 9-1-1 Hot Seat

We expect a calm, capable human being on the other end of the line — here's why there's a dangerous shortage

These are the words you expect to hear when calling in an emergency: “9-1-1, what is your emergency?” But what if you didn’t?

We expect a reassuring voice upon dialing 9-1-1, especially when our psyche could use a dose of the cavalry. It all starts with public-safety dispatchers picking up the phone, hearing your request, and sending police, fire, or EMS assets.

Imagine the necessary mental stamina and the drain on physiology for the person responsible for answering emergency calls. It is extraordinarily taxing, and that is why our nation is undergoing a severe shortage of public-safety dispatchers. No matter how strong we are, persistent duress translates to personal distress and absolute burnout. And that burnout is the bully that takes a toll on these behind-the-scenes professionals who are expected to get the ball rolling, immediately and without fail.

There is a massive revolving-door issue for 9-1-1 dispatchers due to stress.

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Imagine calling for emergency assistance, then listening to ring after ring when you need help pronto … and the nationwide shortage of dispatchers that we are currently facing becomes a frightening prognosis.

I started my police career in that proverbial “hot seat,” the one where emergency-services dispatchers sit for an inordinately long period of time and answer to human hysteria and carnage. Confined to a chair (readied) in a windowless room (distraction-free zone) while having the world’s problems blast in your ears (emotional sway) is astronomically stressful.

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At first, I was a police dispatcher only. Then the role of fire/rescue/EMS dispatching came along. It took me a mere few months before I regretted signing the two-year contract to be a police dispatcher. Why “two-year” contracts? Retention and recouping expenses, should a dispatcher resign early in the onset. There is a massive revolving door issue for 9-1-1 dispatchers due to the stress. Agencies spend plenty of money to process, hire, train, and equip their 9-1-1 outfits. Some make a career out of it; most do not. I’ve seen many opt out and reimburse the agency.

Conceptual Pros and Cons
Years ago, police departments had their own dispatchers to handle police calls for service. Synonymously, fire departments had fire dispatchers. EMS had medical dispatchers. With decentralization, dispatchers were only responsible for one service. Slicing the public-safety services pie took some of the load off.

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Then police, fire, and EMS services started to be combined in certain areas until it became the new normal; nowadays, most public-safety dispatchers answer phones for all three emergency types and send help. Although it may lessen the impact on an agency’s budget, it could be fatiguing and wearing down the humans answering the calls too quickly.

The centralized concept also required additional training. Police-specific dispatchers required emergency medical training. Hence, the Emergency Medical Dispatch (EMD) model was born. As a police dispatcher, I was effectively trained as a tele-paramedic. That heaped on far more training and responsibility than what I signed up for.

Whether the innovative concept of dispatching police, fire and EMS from under one roof is good or bad remains debatable. It may conserve operating expenses, but it does nothing to save the sanctity of public-safety operators. I performed all three and felt my physical and mental health suffering from the unrelenting deluge of crises. I know other dispatchers struggle with the same thing.

Public Safety Assets
So scarce is the public-safety pool of candidates that some recruiters resort to doling out business cards everywhere they go. They are always encountering shortages in staffing levels. As jurisdictions grow, so do the calls for emergency services. Public-safety communications centers see an increasing number of residents handled by a diminishing number of 9-1-1- operators. Staff shortage prevents adequate breaks for dispatchers, fanning the problem.

Public-safety dispatcher salaries have gotten better but still remain too low, especially considering the profession’s demanding nature. But even if public-safety dispatchers were handsomely paid, it does not solve the problem of the physical and mental impacts of the job. It is one of those things whereby any enhancements are appreciated, but one sheer fact remains: human tragedies for which someone must answer the call. There is not much remedy for that, at least not a sustaining one.

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Oklahoma Highway Patrol (OHP) is one example of a jurisdiction suffering a dispatcher shortage. OHP’s most recent dispatcher-recruiting effort resulted in zero applicants. With a dire need to fill vacancies, they have focused on recruiting at high schools. OHP is also considering lowering standards to more immediately fill dispatcher slots, effectively waiving things such as experience requirements. Inexperience and under-maturity may or may not be an issue with teenage public-safety recruits, but dispatching is a job that cannot afford mistakes, and inexperience invites mishaps. Also, lowering standards in any profession is almost always an act of desperation that does not bode well for positive results.

Another option some agencies employ is to cross-train their sworn law enforcement officers to work the dispatch center, usually resulting in overtime pay or just a change from street duty. Cops are paid higher than dispatchers, and justly so, taxpayers expect them to be out on the streets preempting crime. Thus, this solution becomes a trade-off that poses potentially severe consequences, such as a climb in crime rates.

My agency cross-trained police records clerks and other civilian police personnel to fill dispatcher vacancies, and that worked well as a temporary Band-Aid. Nevertheless, we were perpetually shorthanded.

My days off were often spent recuperating in absolute silence.

Ultimately, any short-staffed public-safety communications center transcends dispatcher burnout and engenders an equally large issue: vulnerability in and threats to officer safety. Some agencies allow their dispatchers to decide how officers respond to calls, such as sending them in “hot” (lights/sirens) or not. When such circumstances result badly, a dispatcher is responsible, fueling the stress levels. The Ferguson, Missouri, police department is currently dealing with this very problem.

The feeling of responsibility further increases the potential for burnout. Imagine how on-duty Dallas police dispatchers felt when they lost five of their own cops to sniper fire and listened to the whole debacle unfold on police frequencies while carrying out their duties. That is a tremendous toll. There is no denying or softening such a haunting experience. The camaraderie, the second-guessing, and the personal responsibility trigger the emotional tsunami.

Finding a Solution to the Problem
Universally, 9-1-1 centers never close. As a 24/7/365 operation, one can imagine the wear and tear on dispatchers due to sleep patterns disturbed by shift work, the nature of dealing with human depravity, the thanklessness, and the facelessness of working behind a phone bank and a wall of computer screens. Staff shortages are compounded by mandatory overtime to fill empty slots. Extra money is nice, but the heavy workload causes dispatchers to feel spent continuously. My days off were often spent recuperating in absolute silence.

Speaking of facelessness and anonymity, public-safety operators regularly deal with callers who decide to lambast, cuss, condemn, ridicule, and demean them, like trolls do on Facebook. I suppose folks see dispatchers as easy targets. I was cussed at more when I was a police communications officer than when I was a sworn policeman working the streets.

Nevertheless, it is done day in and day out. Public-safety dispatchers show up until they can’t drag themselves in any more. Burnout festers as the shifts stack up and demand attention, greedily grabbing for your last fiber. Burnout is seemingly the soul’s mechanism, which telegraphs, “No more. I’ve had enough!”

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Answering the call comes with deep soul-searching, and those on the other end of the line rely on that reassuring, omnipresent voice. Ever thought about the notion of having an emergency within an emergency? Dispatchers do, daily, and it is just a matter of time before one is out of tokens at the toll.

In March 2016, Fox News reported on Gwinnett County, Georgia, where their innovative method of using treadmills to exercise, stay sharp, and maintain health while answering emergency calls is one for the win-win column. What do you think is a suitable antidote for dispatcher burnout?

National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week is April 9-15, 2017, so show some love to the unsung heroes who answer the phone and send the cavalry.

Stephen Owsinski is a retired law enforcement officer whose career included assignments in the Uniformed Patrol Division and field training officer (FTO) unit. He is currently a senior OpsLens contributor, a researcher, and a writer. This OpsLens article is used with permission.

Read more at OpsLens:
Respect the Rank
Dereliction of Duty

meet the author

Stephen Owsinski is a LifeZette contributing editor. Owsinski is a retired law enforcement officer whose career included assignments in the Uniformed Patrol Division and Field Training Officer (FTO) unit. He is also a columnist for the National Police Association.

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