Watson Consoles Blog

Jul 11, 2017 Health & Wellness, High Performance Environment

The Power of Resilience: How to Thrive as a 9-1-1 Dispatch Professional

The power of resilience: How to thrive as a 9-1-1 dispatcher.

Why do some people thrive in the midst of daily challenges while others get taken out? Why can some people tolerate a tremendous amount of stress and others get sick? Resilience.

Resilience is the ability to bounce back in the face of hardship and adversity, and perform at your best on a consistent basis. Like a stress ball that returns to its original shape after being squeezed, the resilient recover more quickly when life’s pressures mount. Research has shown that dispatchers who are resilient feel more in control of their work and lives in general, use less sick time and are happier. Boosting your overall level of resilience affects both your physical and mental well-being. It can mean the difference between feeling overwhelmed and checked-out, or knowing your efforts are making an impact. 

Why does resilience matter?

At a recent NENA conference I was speaking to a dispatch supervisor on the verge of retiring after 30 years in the profession. I was surprised at how youthful she looked given her long tenure. I had to know her secret.

“How’d you make it this far and not let the job get to you?” I asked.

“Oh,” she said, “a couple things have saved me. First, I have a life outside of work. I love my hobbies. I look forward to getting to them everyday, and it helps me leave work at work. I also make sure to take time for fun. I exercise regularly. And I do whatever I can to focus on the bright side.”

Because of her daily self-care practices, this 30-year veteran is going to retire well, ready to engage in the next chapter of her life. This is the power of resilience! To boost your level of resilience, it’s good to understand your stress levels. Self awareness allows us to take action early.

Warning signs of stress can be subtle

emotional distance - women with head in her handsYou might notice you’re less patient with those around you, hoping that they quickly get to the point of what they’re saying. You begin to emotionally distance yourself from situations. Conditioned by daily ups and downs, you may be unable to relax, locked in a state of hyper-vigilance. These behaviors are natural responses to 9-1-1 work. Distancing oneself from traumatic calls is necessary. Being alert while exacting control of your radio board is crucial.

But over time, these habits bleed into more than just work: emotional distance can become a problem when your child needs someone to talk to or your spouse would like some affection. Your hyper-vigilant senses may keep you on edge and cause you to rush around constantly, unable to focus on loved ones.

Understand the impacts of duty-related stress

There are more serious consequences. According to the research, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and other clinically diagnosed maladies can also result. A study done in 2015, with a sample size of 808 telecommunicators, found the prevalence of current probable PTSD was between 18% to 25% (Lilly & Allen,2015).

The probable rate of major depression in this large sample of 9-1-1 telecommunicators was 24%. Things like alcohol abuse, depression, and PTSD have been shown to contribute to negative physical health consequences like weight problems and physical health complaints common among first responders (Lilly etal., 2015).

With over 100,000 police, fire and medical dispatchers working in PSAPs across the U.S., these numbers point to a growing crisis. Understanding the severity of this problem matters on several fronts, from staffing to morale to agency liability. The research conclusively shows that 9-1-1 telecommunicators experience stress as a result of duty-related traumatic situations, and that those who suffer from this peritraumatic distress experience more PTSD and depressive symptoms (Pierce &Lilly, 2012).

5 simple steps that bust stress and build resilience

Depositphotos_72253083_m-2015.jpgIf you notice that you’re feeling over stressed, build your resilience using some of these excellent suggestions from primary researcher on the 2012 study and former 9-1-1 telecommunicator, Heather Pierce:

  1. Be kind to yourself!! Eat healthy. Sleep. Exercise. Exercise is critical to mental health. Have a life outside of work. Get a hobby. Socialize with people that aren't in public safety. Go to work healthy and prepared for duty.

  1. Seek social support. Expression and suppression of emotion are significant factors in resilience. Keeping your emotions bottled up during a call is necessary to do your job, but is not a long-term solution.

  1. Do not self diagnose or subsequently self medicate. If you're noticing some issues, get PROFESSIONAL help.

  1. Leave work at work. This is an awesome benefit of being an hourly employee. Especially if you’re being forced to work OT, make a clean break with some healthy boundaries.

  1. Work—life balance. We all love overtime checks, but you have to ask yourself if it is worth it. Keep it in balance and be aware of when you're feeling theburn. Don't be afraid to tap out occasionally.

Watching your warning signs and keeping tabs on your overall stress levels is a good way to make sure that, in the event of a critical incident or traumatic call, you have resilience to draw from. Checking in with yourself regularly and seeking help when needed is the pathway to living well and retiring healthy as a 9-1-1 telecommunicator. 

Studies cited in this article

  • Lilly, M.M., et al. (2015). Predictors of obesity and physical health complaints among9-1-1 telecommunicators. Safety and Health at Work,http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.shaw.2015.09.003.Pierce, H.A., & Lilly, M.M. (2012).
  • Duty-related trauma exposure in 9-1-1telecommunicators: Considering the risk of Post traumatic Stress Disorder. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 25, 211-215.Lilly, M.M., & Allen, C.E. (2015).
  • Psychological inflexibility and psychopathology in 9-1-1 telecommunicators. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 28, 262-266.Lilly, M. M., & Pierce, H. A. (2012).
  • PTSD and depressive symptoms in 9-1-1 telecommunicators: The role of peritraumatic distress and world assumptions in predicting risk. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0026850. 



What do you do to build resilience as a 9-1-1 dispatcher?



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About the Author

Adam TimmAdam Timm is the author of the #1 bestselling book, Stress Is Optional! How to Kick the Habit, and the co-founder of The Healthy Dispatcher, a company devoted to inspiring front line 9-1-1 telecommunicators with innovative training classes, leadership coaching, and consulting services.A 9-1-1 telecommunicator for over a decade and a passionate advocate for PSAP health and wellness, he brings his stories from the front line into his writings and classes. He is a frequent keynote and breakout session speaker at APCO and NENA conferences around the country, and his second book, Dispatcher Stress: 50 Lessons on Beating the Burnout, is out now.

Also available at watsonconsoles.com, Adam's blog How the Best Comm Centers Motivate Frontline Employees.