When Caitlin Sampsell decided to go back to school to earn a master’s degree in Public Administration from Western Michigan University last year, she chose a master’s research theme that was relevant to her life and work. She focused on conducting a study entitled “Communications Center Management Stress and 9-1-1 Communications”, with the sole purpose of trying to identify strategies that 9-1-1 communication center administrators could use in order to minimize the sources of stress within its communications staff.
“This was done in an effort to improve attendance, retention, quality of work and quality of life for our communicators,” Sampsell said.
She recently presented her research findings, with some informative suggestions for improvement, to attendees at APCO 2015, APCO International’s Annual Conference & Expo last month.
A self-described “call-taker, dispatcher and supervisor all rolled up in one”, Sampsell is a shift supervisor and assistant director at the Berrien County 9-1-1 Public-Safety Communication Center in Michigan.
When Sampsell began her research in January of 2014, there were 152 primary public safety answering points in Michigan, and she sent invitations to all of them, except her own. Her research primarily focused on organizational and occupational stressors. The surveys – aimed at both administrators and telecommunicators – asked a variety of questions pertaining to the job, stressors and workplace environment. There was also an administrative survey to help obtain site information. Of those queried, 72 agencies responded, representing about 3.9 million total calls. The respective agencies had between five and 52 telecommunicators, with a median number of 12.
Sampsell gave the telecommunicators a list of 33 sources of stress and asked them to indicate those they currently felt pertained most to them. Respondents reported being stressed by between five and all 33 different categories, with a median of 25.
Among the top stressors:
- Struggles among co-workers
- Poor communication among staff
- Poor communication between management staff, field personnel and the public
- Lack of adequate equipment
- Scapegoating in the communications center
- Lack of appreciation from management
- Personal conflicts at work
- Constantly changing policies
To get a better understanding of just how much of a toll the job can take emotionally, Sampsell asked survey respondents to tell of the most troubling and distressing calls they’ve ever taken. A few examples: one man took the call that his wife had died; another took the call of a fatal car accident down the street from where she lived, then discovered the car and time of accident described her daughter.
“Calls involving family or those that remind us of our family can be the most difficult,” Sampsell said.
Calls that fail to have a resolution can also be highly-stressful for comm centers. One dispatcher told of a call in which she was on the phone with a man during a multiple-car pileup on the interstate. As the man described a truck jack-knifing and coming toward him, the dispatcher could hear the crash. She never learned if she was the last person who talked to the man before he died, and it weighed heavily on her.
“Lack of resolution, not finding out what happens can really weigh on you,” Sampsell said, “because we don’t get closure for those calls.”
Sampsell said she highly recommends that supervisors encourage officers or EMS personnel to stop in or call to let dispatchers know what has happened after an emergency, which will allow them to come to terms with the incident.
“When they ask questions, they are not doing it to just be nosey, they are doing it to try and get that closure . . . . so they can have a resolution and move on,” Sampsell said.
Harmful levels of stress in the workplace can lead to mental and physical health problems, increased sick-time usage, burnout, increased turnover, and a greater potential for mistakes. Sampsell’s research also found that telecommunicators are more likely to experience health issues such as increased cardiovascular disease, alcoholism, suicide and shorter life expectancy.
With the advancement of Text-to-9-1-1 and multimedia messages, telecommunicators are also being asked to do more, which leads to even more stress.
Lack of proper equipment is also stressful for telecommunicators, especially in tough budgetary times.
“Do you have chairs that are falling apart, or are you struggling to find headsets that work,?” Sampsell said. “Are you constantly having to move around so you can get one that doesn’t have static?”
Respondents also felt as if management did not provide enough support following a crisis. About 50 percent weren’t even sure what their communications center offered in the areas of health and well-being services.
About 83.3 percent of the respondents wanted more exposure to critical incident debriefing (CID). In most cases, the CID is often geared specifically towards officers on the scene, or the person handling the police radio.
Based on her findings, Sampsell said several key components are vital to help decrease the stress levels for telecommunicators:
- Being mindful of the frequency and number of changes being made to policies and procedures, and how that can add to stress.
- Proper upkeep of equipment.
- Public and agency outreach. Invite officers to do sit-ins, participate in ride-alongs with other agencies and engage the media.
- Encourage field responders to follow up with dispatchers and have a working relationship.
- Focus on appropriate staffing and scheduling.
- Improve communications between management and staff. Encourage more management training for supervisors; issue a newsletter or bulletin postings about what’s available with the employee assistance program or create a small library with books and videos about health and wellness.
- Have sit-downs with individual employees once or twice a month to find out what concerns and needs they may have in a non-threatening environment. Make it a conversation.
Sampsell said it’s imperative that communication center supervisors are cognizant of the highly-stressful environment telecommunicators work under daily, keep the lines of communication open and continue to motivate staff.
“Even if you think you have the best staff in the world, it doesn’t matter if you don’t tell them, if you don’t show them that,” Sampsell said. “You have to make sure that you’re doing that.”