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More Than a Call Taker: The Public Safety Dispatcher and Stress

Author: Jevon Thompson

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2016-07-18
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In the law enforcement community, there are many situations police officers face that can heighten stress levels such as high-risk calls, working long shifts, bureaucratic pressure, department mismanagement, and personal life drama. Another important issue that goes unnoticed is the intense level of stress that public safety dispatchers face on a daily basis.

Let’s be clear; this article is written from the viewpoint of an experienced police officer and not an emergency dispatcher. Although there are other materials on dispatcher stress, I’ve felt it was important to write on the subject from this perspective. Too often people use the incorrect title for police dispatchers that do not define their job function. For instance, they are sometimes called “Call Takers” or “Radio Operators.”

In public safety organizations employees are identified by their rank and title such as Corporal, Sergeant, Lieutenant, Captain, and Chief of Police. For this reason diminishing the job of public safety dispatchers to simple call takers and telephone operators is amiss. The incorrect colloquialism gives a false insight to the common public. We would not call a plumber to diagnose a medical condition. Titles assist with determining what pedagogy and skill a person have. The reality is that stereotypical terms such as those do not identify the duties of a communications professional – public safety dispatcher, telecommunicator, radio dispatcher, 9-1-1 dispatcher, Emergency Medical Dispatcher, etc. – and minimizes the capabilities it takes to be an emergency dispatcher .

While public safety telecommunicators do answer 9-1-1 calls and dispatch emergency responders over the radio – terms like “call taker,” “radio operator,” and the like, minimize the qualifications and capabilities that emergency dispatchers bring to their difficult jobs. Photo: 9-1-1 Magazine File Photo


Job-Related Stress

Some of the calls public safety dispatchers take from the public and dispatch over the radios deal with involve shootings, stabbings, armed robberies, homicides, sexual assaults, medical distress, suicide, hostage taking, civil disorder, terrorism incidents, kidnapping, child abuse, prostitution, fatalities, cataclysm disasters, and officer involved shootings to name a few. Anyone of these calls during a shift is enough to increase stress levels for public safety dispatchers. If dispatchers are stressed out from the job, then seeking professional guidance, even medical help may be a benefit.


Dispatching and Departmental Stress

There are also departmental stressors in the communications division. Management may become overcritical toward the police dispatchers because their performance levels do not meet the department's expectations. Instead of displaying negativity supervisory personnel should address issues that are related to stress such as fatigue, heavy workload, psychological trauma, and individual medical issues that affect the communications center operability. As law enforcement, fire service,  and/or EMS employees, emergency dispatchers may experience a stressor called the fight-or-flight syndrome. During stressful incidents the heart rate increases, muscles tighten, and blood pressure rises. Some documented signs of stress can include becoming agitated, moody, frustrated, feeling overwhelmed, loss of control, have low self-esteem, or can feel depressed and isolated.

Emergency dispatchers are not always going to sound perky, energetic, and spirited on the air broadcasting information (and, indeed, part of their job is to maintain a calm and controlled demeanor while on phones or radio duty). Issues related to job stress can affect demeanor within the communications center – with lack of rest, the dispatcher may seem unambitious, sleepy, and impassive. While it can be a public safety issue if the dispatcher is not attentive due to personal stress, sensitivity and empathy need to be given to the dispatcher by management to proactively deal with this issue. Perhaps they are experiencing physical symptoms such as low energy, headaches, pains, colds, infections, muscle tension, upset stomach, and dry mouth. Remember that room temperature may also affect the dispatchers need to function comfortably during a sixteen-hour shift. Being stationary in excessive cold and heat while working in cluttered spaces may diminish job performance. Also, remember that some dispatchers are not able to walk away from the communication area to take care of their ailments without relief.

It is true that stress can also lead to poor judgment and the inability to focus on important tasks such as providing suspect information to officers and being focused for long periods of time during a hostage crisis. When management fails to recognize these issues, the public safety dispatcher can become pessimistic during the shift and see only the downside in nearly every instance. Especially for small dispatch centers who need to call field units in for break, meal, and personal relief, it is courteous as well as often essential for supervisors and field officers to be positive in providing relief.  Be attentive to signs of stress over the radio or phone and ask the dispatcher if they need a break or a snack because often stress can be related to the changes in appetite – such as not having the opportunity to eat on a busy shift, or the lack of healthy food options at three o’clock AM.

Other forms of departmental stress can be from the public safety officers themselves. Some police officers like to obtain information quickly to mitigate problems. What some officers fail to understand is that public safety dispatchers have to multi-task. For instance, when an officer requests non-essential information on the air and does not have an emergency, there may be one dispatcher on duty. They could be handling a citizen complaint at the station, answering multiple phones lines, monitoring cameras for suspicious activity, typing data, conducting warrant checks, assisting with a traffic stop, and relaying information to the command staff.

Dealing with unresolved stress may hinder the organization's mission. Management should provide positive opportunities for dispatchers to attend training on how to address mental health issues, depression, anxiety, and abnormal behavior.

It is all about demonstrating compassion and letting the dispatcher feel appreciated for the tough job they do.


Stress Affects Thoughts and Emotions

For the record, I am not a medical health professional, but common knowledge and studies tell me that major life changes may lead to increased stress. In law enforcement, dispatchers, like responders, must be alert and on point because lives are at stake. Arriving to work feeling irritable, frustrated, worrisome, and lethargic may affect mood and thinking abilities during the shift. It is important that dispatchers have a coping mechanism to combat stress. Some coping mechanisms can be taking walks on a lunch break, listening to soothing music, reading a book, sit in a relaxing environment, exercise, deep breathing, and seeking spiritual guidance to help with having positive thoughts and emotions. At times, police officers may unintentionally add to the emotional stress by not providing appropriate information during an arrest, traffic stop, suspicious activity, or other field-generated service call.

In smaller departments where dispatchers also work the public service desk, they must also give their attention to other agencies visiting the station to investigate crimes. All of these factors may lead to burnout and time off from the job. I, remember giving the dispatcher a break and all hell broke loose. There were constant non-emergency phone calls, ringing alarms, visitors coming into the station, and my share of 9-1-1 emergency calls. It heightened my stress level and was not what I would call a delightful experience. Having the ability to multi-task is essential to thrive in the world of dispatching. Public safety officers may face a crises situation during the shift that involves a police officer's life. Just as officers experience the fight-or-flight syndrome during emergencies, so do dispatchers – although the nature of their job gives them no option to but to stay put and handle it. Adrenaline levels become heightened for the officer and dispatcher alike. It’s important to remember than when an officer is in trouble and requests emergency help, the dispatcher is the officer’s lifeline. Thoughts and emotions rise high and so do the stress levels during emergency situations. At the end of the day, dispatchers may still need to deal with low-pay, malcontent co-workers, impatient officers, and leadership that always scrutinizes the communications division for making minor mistakes in judgment. These factors may negatively affect the dispatcher’s thoughts and emotions.

To recap, here are five ways to help dispatchers with stress during the shift:

  • Senior management should meet with their staff to discuss scheduling conflicts, extending break times, more time off, addressing personal needs, and encouraging Employment Assistance Programs that deal with stress, depression, anxiety, grief, and counseling.
  • In smaller dispatch centers, officers can be helpful by asking the dispatcher if they need food, water, and if possibly a break.
  • Public safety personnel should be patient with receiving information, respectful in tone, and listen to the information broadcasted to avoid the dispatcher having to repeat themselves.
  • During a traffic stop, call for emergency asistance, field interview, emergency pursuit, and a critical incident let the dispatcher know the location and speak clearly on the radio.
  • Be professional on the radio. Do not engage in a verbal disagreement with the dispatcher. Remember the old saying “You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” 


Dispatchers are Talented People

In conclusion, a dispatcher is more than a “call taker.”  Public safety dispatchers are a group of highly talented and trained individuals who cope with immense stress and still place the needs of others before themselves. Take care of them.


Jevon Thompson is a police officer and adjunct professor at Norwich University. He enjoys writing on issues regarding public safety and organizational leadership.


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