For Dispatchers, Is Organizational Stress The Worst Kind?

As a public safety telecommunications operator stress exists all around. But it’s not the external stress that’s the hardest to deal with. It’s the unseen management, too many bosses and co-workers with strong personalities.

In the world of emergency telecommunications, stressors exist. A lot of stressors exist. It would be logical to believe our clients create most of the stress especially in 9-1-1. After all, they aren’t having the best day when they call us. In actuality, much of the stress that comes with the job is not external at all - it’s internal. Although departments have different structures and unique qualities, one thing they have in common is organizational stress. In my experience, this stress came from three sources: the bureaucracy, supervisors and co-workers.

Working for the Man

Being a 9-1-1 operator/dispatcher means working in a para-military organization with a chain of command and most of the decisions being made way at the top without input from those implementing and working within any changes made. Many of these changes seem arbitrary and not well thought out. For example, because of the call volume we would get in the summer, especially around summer holidays like Fourth of July, management decided our officers would no longer respond to loud music or shots fired calls unless there were extenuating circumstances. I understand officers were spread thin and need to prioritize but if you’ve ever been on the phone with a frustrated citizen who lives next door to party house central at 3 in the morning on a work night while they are trying for the umpteenth time to get their baby to sleep the stress is palpable. (Italics begin) Yes, ma’am, I understand that they are disturbing the peace. Yes, I know that the police should be responding. Yes, we value you and appreciate your calling. No, we will not be coming to address your needs. We’ll broadcast the information to any officer in the area. Have a nice night and thank you for calling. (Italics end) Usually changes get relayed via memo at the beginning of the shift to be implemented right then. The stress comes from feeling “at the whim” of those who don’t actually do my job. I’m sure the decision sounded good from a policy and procedure standpoint but from a practicality standpoint it makes for a very frustrating shift.

Hey Boss(es)

Stress also comes from having too many bosses. One evening I was working a northside frequency and had already moved my seat once in the shift because my computer went down. I relocated to the very back of the radio room. The radios were having one of their fabulous evenings where officer transmissions become lost in the airwaves and the ones I could hear sounded like they were underwater. A typical summer evening in metro-Arizona. Around mid-night, I was working on a possible occupied stolen and was keeping the radio-waves as quiet as I could. Waiting for the Code 4, I sat poised and ready for the call to either get under control or get crazy. As I was sitting and straining my ears to hear anything from my officers, one of the supervisors stood up from the pod in the middle of the room. She yelled out, “Michelle, did you hear that?” I stood up and looked at her trying to understand what she was saying to me while still keeping the radio traffic my priority. “What?” The supervisor yelled back, “The 906…didn’t you hear it?” My mind started racing. “906…what 906?” That was our code for get me help—NOW!! I didn’t hear anything and hadn’t for a while. Not wanting to wait for an explanation, I went All-Call and put the 906 out over the whole city. When I finished my transmission, the radio went crazy. Above the din, I heard the supervisor yell, “Not now. It was a while ago. It’s Code 4 now. He’s in custody.” Then she sat back down. I felt frozen in my chair. What just happened? I fixed the mess on my frequency calming everyone down and waited to get relieved so I could figure out what was going on.

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