The 911 Dispatcher Stress Experts

Common Stressors For Dispatchers 

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All Dispatchers share common stressors such as rotating shifts, long hours, overtime, car chases, suicide calls, and domestic calls.  The types of calls and the amount of them happen to a greater or lesser extent depending on the size of the organization. Yet whether an organization is large or small ALL dispatchers need to recognize and cope with stress.

The telecommunications environment is unique because very few other jobs require such an attention to detail and accuracy performed in an expedited manner. Calls for Police, Fire or EMS response require precision and care. A wrong address, a missed word from the complainant as well as the failure to get pertinent information can spell disaster, not only for the success of the call, but may also pose a threat of potential liability for the department.

Because the typical telecommunications center is a fast paced environment there isn't always time to sit and plan an action.  As a Emergency Dispatcher you must be ready to act fast, and decisively.   Subsequently, there is very little down time available to where you can rest and re-group after each task.  Emergency calls sometimes come in rapid succession, and even when there is a little downtime you are still in a Ready Alert Status never really knowing what the next call will bring.

This ready alert status is similar to what soldiers experience while in combat.  That means that even when there is no actual threat, and there is no bullets flying around, the soldiers are still in a alert status ready to fight when needed.  This is very much true for dispatchers.  This is true even when the communications center is quiet and there are no calls or other activity going on. You might have a magazine out, or a newspaper doing the crosswords, and you think you feel relaxed. Yet your body is still in a readiness status. It is still in a heighten arousal state ready to react to the next event. This is native to the dispatch environment. Therefore unless you learn to adapt, cope and adjust to this work environment, over time, the sustained stress can burn you out.

Currently according to some estimates the turnover rate for dispatchers is just about 2-3 years.  While this turnover may be due to other reasons like attrition, or termination or even retirement, by and large the inability to cope with the sustained daily stress of the job plays the greatest role.  Compound this with other factors native to the position such as lack of appropriate sleep (due to rotating shifts), improper diet, family problems caused by working odd hours, etc., and you have a very stressful atmosphere in which to work. While the communications environment usually perks like a well-oiled machine, the human body is not a machine, and it can wear down and most people do after a while.

While all dispatchers share a common thread of experience in regard to common stressors, no two dispatchers will react in the same way to a given situation.  Although we might fault a coworker for reacting a certain way to a crisis situation because they didn't hold up like we did, the truth of the matter is that there is many reasons why they acted differently.  How a person reacts will have a lot to do with how mature they are and how experienced they are in the position.

Experience - Experience is more than just how long we have been at the job. It is the sum total of all our life experience up to the present. The importance of experience is that when it is combined with the experience of others it becomes a potent weapons against failure within the unit.

Maturity - More than just physical age, maturity in relation to stress is the emotional age of the person.  For instance, a person can be in their forties and still have the emotional maturity of a twelve-year old.  The difference between adult and adolescent maturity is a matter of keeping intellect (factual thinking) predominant over emotional thinking (subjective thinking).

Knowledge of the Job - This is pretty simple; if you know your job you are more confident, so you are less likely to lose control in a crisis situation.  If you have done it before, you can do it again.  Yet those with less knowledge of the job may react differently especially if they have never handled a certain type of call or situation before.  This is why training PLUS experience is so important.  Knowledge erases fear, and it is fear that precedes the anger that contributes to losing control of the situation.

Nobody, regardless how long they have been on the job knows everything there is to know about all its aspects. There are no "Master Dispatchers". Yet where one person lacks knowledge and experience, there is usually someone else on the same shift that does know and have what the other lacks.  This is the strength of being part of a team.

The lack of experience and/or knowledge about what to do is one of the reasons for failure within the team.  Lack of knowledge and experience  in the job creates a realm of unknowing which leads to fear.  Fear of failure freezes initiative and subsequently someone doesn't do what they should have done. 

Helping Dispatchers Cope with Stress