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The Importance of Mitigating Oneself

Author: Barry Furey

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2016-01-07
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Everyone involved in emergency management is familiar with the term “mitigation.” It is a nice sanitary word created to define the critical process of cleaning up the mess left by the disaster and getting back to normal. Typically this concept is applied to communities, or sections of communities, that have been directly and most severely impacted by a natural or man-made event. But at this time of year, in the aftermath of what we now call the holiday season, perhaps we should make a more personal application. While my columns normally apply to managers, to start 2016 I’m going to address all PSAP (Public Safety Answering Point) personnel, and particularly telecommunicators. This is the time to mitigate yourself. 

Twenty-fifteen will be remembered as the year that we solved all of the world’s problems by overlaying flag transparencies on our Facebook profile photos and by posting memes so quickly on the heels of major events that they seemingly had to be mass produced by clairvoyants. In related news, we had a full moon on Christmas for the first time since the 1970s, and we all know what that means. But it will also be remembered not so fondly by dispatchers in Florida who lost a colleague to cancer just before Christmas, nor by those in Ohio, who handled a firefighter fatality on December 28th. It was truly Black Friday in Colorado, where an officer was shot to death the day after Thanksgiving, and it was decidedly not a Happy Holiday for Texas telecommunicators who saw one of their own taken by a killer tornado on December 26th.

Are there really more bad calls this time of the year, or do our memories trick us because such terrible sadness should not be associated with what are supposed to be the best of times? In any event, these are the burdens that we bear for choosing a career in public safety. While I can find no authoritative correlation between the frequency of critical incidents and days of celebration, I do know that during my parallel careers inside and outside of the 9-1-1 center, I’ve seen and heard more than my share of holiday horrors, and I suspect you have too. Given that we can’t escape the harsh reality of man’s inhumanity to man, we really do owe it to ourselves –as well as our families and co-workers – to learn to effectively manage these unpleasantries.

In addition to our work related woes, there are also plenty of normal stressors to pass around this time of year. According to statistics from 2012, a majority of Americans spend more than they earn, and one quarter have more debt than savings. I’m not sure that things have miraculously changed over the past couple of years, so if you’ve got concerns over money, you’ve got lots of friends. The pressure to please as expressed by purchasing presents, coupled with other expenses that normally come due at year’s end leave many in a financial funk through January and February. It may be more blessed to give than to receive, but that lasts only until the credit card bills arrive. While some try to relieve the strain by working additional hours, this can cause another troubling effect – burnout.

Winter – at least in the northern climes – can be a dark and depressing time. The most aptly named malady – SAD – or seasonal affective disorder – makes its annual appearance.  While SAD can technically also occur in the spring, according to the Mayo Clinic, the late year symptoms include irritability, tiredness or low energy, problems getting along with other people, hypersensitivity to rejection, heavy, "leaden" feeling in the arms or legs, oversleeping, appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates, and weight gain. Considering that some shift workers may never see the sun for months, it’s not surprising that changes such as these occur.

The holidays themselves can even be troubling for many. The desire to have everything “perfect,” the lack of free time, overeating and excessive drinking,  plus increased interaction with family members can often make for a season not to be jolly. The added nuances of life at 9-1-1, such as rotating shifts, short staffing, missing social events because of work, and seemingly managing the ills of an entire community can quickly take their collective toll. So now that we are rolling full speed ahead into 2016, how do we fix ourselves? Just as there is no singular cause for this crisis, there is also no single solution.

As with managing any phase of an emergency, start with gathering the facts. How are you feeling? Physically? Emotionally? Financially? Go out and get some exercise. See the sunshine. Eat healthy. These are always good suggestions for telecommunicators who do not always lead a healthy lifestyle, but are especially beneficial in the wake of cumulative stress. If you’re sad, blue, anxious or otherwise depressed, try to put a finger on what’s troubling you.  Talk to some friends, clergy or peers. If necessary, seek professional counseling. Hopefully your employer offers some sort of employee assistance program that can help. Note to managers reading this: Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD) should be provided for any event that impacts an employee, a crew, or your center. Be especially mindful that telecommunicators can be especially sensitive to these calls during the November and December timeframe.

Take a realistic assessment of your financial status. What bills are due? Are any overdue? The temptation to pay only the minimum balance on credit cards can snowball quickly. Set up a budget and stick with it. If shopping for credit counseling or debt consolidation, chose wisely. Not all services are created equal. The Federal Trade Commission has a handy page (http://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0153-choosing-credit-counselor) with helpful hints on how to get started.

Finally, know that you are not alone, but that your feelings may not be the same as your co-workers. We all react differently to life’s events based upon a complex combination of factors. Still, according to psychcentral.com, a full 25% of Americans suffer from some form of “holiday hangover.” And this type doesn’t go away with a cup of black coffee. Go mitigate yourself.

With more than 45 years’ experience in public safety, including managing large consolidated dispatch centers in three states, Barry Furey now serves as a trainer and consultant for the 9-1-1 and public safety communications community.  See www.barryfurey.com 

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