And sometimes, the mixture is a lot like reality television: High drama, life played out on a small stage, with good guys and bad guys (and often it's hard to tell the difference). But there are ways to make it more pleasant and professional and less like an episode of Survivor.
Who's minding the store?
A first line supervisor who is unable manage people is like an extra appendix: It serves no real purpose and has the potential to cause all kinds of problems. In dispatch, a supervisor must relegate the personal fall-out to a minimum, yet always keep the mission in mind. It helps to have a supervisor who understands both the objective and the people who must accomplish it.
Dean Rumel, an Austin, Texas, firefighter, has seen both sides of dispatching. Rumel, a 24-year veteran, recently returned to active fire fighting after spending five and a half years as a dispatch supervisor. Rumel says he moved to dispatch because he was burned out and thought he could do a better job than was currently being done.
"This was probably the most skewed perception that I had before going to dispatch and continues to be the biggest misconception," Rumel says.
"I realized immediately that there were countless factors, often beyond the control of the dispatchers … that were at play most of the time. Callers were not sure of where they were, gave bad information, and were just plain hard to understand — especially when they were under duress. I also found out quickly that CAD-based dispatching had many internal quirks [in reference to] addressing. I just didn't realize how many factors were involved in getting the rubber on the road," Rumel says.
One of the major problems Rumel saw repeatedly during his stint in telecommunications involved the attitudes of operations personnel.
"It was extremely frustrating to me to have my peers thinking we were incompetent when there were so many factors beyond our control," says Rumel. "The dispatchers are quite a bit more dedicated and hard working than most realize. The concentration level is high and constant … and most outside dispatch have no idea [how hard it is]."
Making it better
Laura van Dernoot Lipsky, author of "Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others" and an expert on the trauma that those who care for others experience, says dispatchers often suffer from the stress of dealing with the stress of others. And, says Lipsky, it doesn't help that they often work in environments that are hostile to good health and peace of mind.
"Buildings with fluorescent lighting, no windows and [poor] snacks options" only add to the problem, Lipsky says.
Many of the changes needed to take a call center from a place where health — both mental and physical — is negatively impacted to one that's the complete opposite can be found in the hands of supervisors. "If leadership takes on the persona [of supporting those] who come in most when sick, take the fewest vacation days" it sends a negative signal to employees, says Lipsky. Instead, supervisors should seek to head off burnout, encourage employees to center their lives around their off-duty activities and refuse to exploit their subordinates.
Lipsky says proactive leadership can prevent many of the problems inherent to working in a 911 call center. She suggests encouraging dispatch personnel to take walks during meal breaks, join a gym, make sure healthy snacks are available, discourage gossip and insist they take time off when they're ill or have too much vacation time on the books.
Call center supervisors should also discourage employees from running to them to share the latest gossip, publicly frown on the establishment of cliques within the center and counsel employees who center their lives on their jobs.
"When they won't integrate anything else into their lives, become very isolated, only hang out with people who 'get it,' start sharing the same sense of humor, same language, same culture, same self-righteousness — it becomes incredibly detrimental to make the world that small," Lipsky says.