When someone hears that you’re a 9-1-1 operator, their mind immediately goes to the life-and-death calls. “Geez, that must be stressful,” they wonder aloud. While it’s true that some calls are overwhelming, it isn’t usually the calls or radio traffic that create the most stress.
It’s something more pervasive. Below, Debra, a career 9-1-1 operator, shares her experience.
Many of us feel stress and get overwhelmed not because we’re taking on too much, but because we’re taking on too little of what really strengthens us. ~Marcus Buckingham
Debra has found herself at one time or other feeling the effects of the wide range of stress brought on by the job.
“I like to think that I get little stress from the calls themselves. I just try to put them out of my mind.” She sounded a bit like the frog sitting in a pot of water that hadn’t quite boiled yet, unaware of the role callers were playing in her stress.
As she let herself talk freely about her feelings and experiences, the impact of the callers came out. “I’ve been called some of the nastiest names in the world. Where do they get off calling me the c-word when I’m trying to help them?!”
So often she felt that they should have behaved in a certain way if they were coming to her for help. Her expectations were different from reality, which caused a lot of stress.
But, as far as she was aware, this wasn’t even the part of the job that was creating the most stress in her life.
“It’s the political aspect of it all that drives me crazy. The supervisors and the political correctness is all too much to deal with.”
The pressure has been slowly increasing in Debra’s life for years. The stress has resulted in excess weight, intestinal issues, poor immune system, arthritis, depression, negativity, shortness of temper, and other challenges.
“I’m very disheartened right now.”
One of the drivers pushing Debra’s attitude is the virtual lack of positive feedback at her comm center.
“The supervisors never tell us anything good about our performance. They only call us in when it’s bad news, when we’ve done something wrong. I told them that one day and they told me, ‘We expect you to do the good stuff. We don’t have time to point out the good things.’”
“Sometimes I get so fed up being talked to like a dog,” she said. “On top of that, we sit at those computers for 8-12 hours a day. We don’t get up. The environment stinks. All of the rules and politics…problem after problem…it depresses you.”
She paused, choked up, and said, “I care, and I want to help people, but sometimes I’m not the nicest. And I don’t want to be that way.”
As Debra so aptly puts it, the callers account for only a small portion of the challenges faced by 9-1-1 telecommunicators. More impactful are the daily hassles posed by comm center politics, poor supervision, and a stifling organizational culture.
This is heartening news. It’s heartening because something can be done about it. If the work (handling calls and working the radio) was the only cause of stress, we might say, “That’s just the way it is,” or, “If you want easier work, get a different job.”
Instead, we have a skilled frontline who care about the job they do and the people they serve getting worn down by aspects of the organization that can and should be improved.
How can things be improved? Ask your people. Turn your most vocally toxic into evangelists for change. Offer opportunities for personal advancement. Engage them with exceptional leadership. Implement training programs that help the frontline thrive.
Amazing things happen when your team feels valued, appreciated, and like their voice matters.
Have you pioneered innovative changes that have positively affected your dispatch center? Please share below.
About the Author:
Adam Timm is the author of the #1 bestselling book, Stress Is Optional! How to Kick the Habit, and the cofounder of The Healthy Dispatcher, a law enforcement training company that offers stress resilience, communication and leadership classes designed for Emergency Dispatchers.
A 9-1-1 telecommunicator for over a decade, he brings his stories from the frontline into his writings and classes. His second book, Dispatcher Stress: 50 Lessons on Beating the Burnout, is out now.