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.
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.
When I was relieved it was super crazy at the supervisor’s pod and I didn’t have a chance to talk to her about the situation. In fact, I wasn’t able to talk to anyone about it until several days later when I met up with my supervisor who brought it up in supervision. By this time, the agency had pulled the tape and listening in the few seconds that had been marked, I heard it faintly. I now knew what I was listening for and it was definitely there. I felt awful. I hadn’t heard it. In the discussion I had with my supervisor, I asked her if she really thought I would just ignore the 906 if I had heard it. Did any of the supervisors feel I would? She said no. Then I asked why the other supervisor, after the fact, had yelled across the room at me like that. If it was after the danger had passed and there wasn’t any need for me to assist the officer and the situation just needed to be discussed with my supervisor, the only reason for the yelling would be to call me out in front of my co-workers. Needless to say, I was upset and felt resentful of the supervisor’s actions. It fueled the stress of feeling like there are too many chiefs in the radio room with different styles and different personalities trying to make all the rules and dole out the discipline.
Last, but certainly not least when it comes to organizational stress are those personalities who occupy the seats around us. I truly believe 9-1-1 and dispatch requires a certain type of person and often that person clashes with others who are the same way. Telecommunicators often are extroverted with strong personalities who have opinions on just about everything. We often believe we are always right and that things need to be done our way or no way. A room full of that can be downright scary. Radio rooms can be full of drama and crackle with tension when two employees are not getting along. This can be work related or even more frequently personal because what happens outside dispatch has filtered in. Opinions run rampant especially in regards to whether or not someone does their job and how well they do it. How the personalities in the room come together creates much of the stress that comes with doing the work.
Although screaming citizens and officers create a lot of stress for a 9-1-1/dispatcher, more often than not, most of the stress is internal. Unseen management, too many bosses and strong personalities around us makes the work even more difficult. Learning how to deal with the organizational stress, usually by letting go of those things we do not control and just doing our own job to the best of our ability can help ease the strain. Work off the inevitable stress in healthy ways such as exercise and meditation. Even with all the stress, it’s such a rewarding career.
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About The Author:
Michelle Perin has been a freelance writer since 2000. Her credits include Law Enforcement Technology, Police, Law and Order, Police Times, Beyond the Badge, Michigan State Trooper, Michigan Snowmobiler Magazine and Chief of Police. She writes two columns a month for Officer.com. Michelle worked for the Phoenix (AZ) Police Department for almost eight years. In December 2010, she earned her Master’s degree in Criminology and Criminal Justice from Indiana State University. Currently, Michelle works as the Administrative Coordinator at Jasper Mountain a residential psychiatric facility for children. In her spare time, she enjoys being the fundraising coordinator for the Lane Area Ferret Shelter & Rescue, playing her bass, working on her young adult novel Desert Ice and raising her two sons in a small town in Oregon.