The profession of a Public Safety Telecommunicator (or Dispatcher) is stressful. Why is that? What happens when we are stressed? What can we do about it?
Public Safety professionals are horrible when it comes to taking are of ourselves but we'll do the impossible to help others. I have come to work with pneumonia rather than call off sick and put my shift short-handed. It's stupid. A co-worked stayed on duty having chest pains (yes, it was a heart-attack) because he was in denial about his condition.
Let's begin with a basic explanation of what happens when the body is stressed. Remember back to your basic biology. When the body is at a 'normal' phase (relaxed), the heart is pumping at the regular rate. Your respirations are even and smooth. You aren't looking over your shoulder or sweating. When a situation causes a person to become extremely upset or become hypervigilent, the body gets ready for action. This is the 'flight or fight'' reaction. It is an automated response.
"The definition of stress, in physiological terms, is a harmful (or potentially harmful) stimulus. Vander, Sherman, and Luciano (2001) state that "these stimuli comprise an immense number of situations, including physical trauma, prolonged exposure to cold, prolonged heavy exercise, infection, shock, decreased oxygen supply, sleep deprivation, pain, fright, and other emotional stresses.Whether the stress is physical or emotional, the response is the same. The adrenal cortex increases secretion of the hormone Cortisol, and the activity of the sympathetic nervous system is increased, resulting in increased epinephrine secretion from the adrenal medulla. Other hormones are also released during stress, and insulin production is usually decreased. "
Thank about the above statement for a moment. we are constantly waiting for the sky to fall. Dispatchers are always 'on the ready' for that mayday or in-progress calls. When we're at work, doesn't it make sense that we have that constant supply of cortisol running in our system? We're always stressed. The day-to-day toll of stress, along with the aftermath of a major event, can lead to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as noted below:
"In the definition of PTSD, the main criterian is that the subject experienced or witnessed an event that involved actual or threatened death or serious injury. Police dispatchers witness many scenes of death, mayhem and destruction while talking on the phone to victims. Yet there is little resolution. They often don’t know what eventually happened, whether the victims lived or died. When the critical incident involves a police officer such as an officer down call, suicide-by-cop, a shootout, or high-speed pursuit, the dispatchers suffer even more dramatically. They may experience adrenaline rushes, heart palpitations, anxiety, and fear. They may have sleepless nights, get irritable and angry, and develop eating disorders. Only in the past few years has police dispatcher trauma been fully recognized and understood." from CopShock
So what can we do to combat stress? Let's start with the obvious.
Take a break once in a while. Use your vacation time! Have a life outside of work. You can't take away the stress of the job but you can find ways to relieve the feeling. First, and I know we all get tired of hearing this, but eat right, get at least eight hours of sleep, and get a little exercise. Working off the stress works wonders. Speak to your spouse, a trusted friend, or take advantage of the counseling programs available through most departments (most are confidential). Hobbies are great. Nothing beats stress like gardening or yoga. I learned to 'ground and center' long ago. Digging in the dirt allows me to get out my aggressions without hurting anyone. At one time, I practiced martial arts. Deep breathing exercises can be done at work. I bought a little container of bubbles and took my time blowing at the wand to create the biggest ones I could. I had fun and let the stress go at the same time. Coloring books for adults have become popular. We have them at work. Again, the act allows one to relax.
There are a couple of books specific to public safety in print:
Under the Headset: Surviving Dispatcher Stress by Richard Behr
Tips From An Emergency Dispatcher: The Book To Read before You Need 911 by Laura Smith
CopShock by Allen, R. Kates
Bulletproof Spirit: The First Responder's Essential Resource for Protecting and Healing Mind and Heart by Willis, Dan, Captain
stay safe out there!