Working in a 911 call center is, by its nature, a very high-stress job. Carrying the responsibility for other people’s safety and well-being on your shoulders is not an easy burden to bear. And being involved with traumatic emergency after traumatic emergency can definitely take its toll, on both an agent’s physical and mental health.
In fact, a recent study demonstrated that the effects of being exposed to so much stress on the job are not insignificant. Its results were published on April 25, 2012, in the Journal of Traumatic Stress: “The results suggest that 911 telecommunicators are exposed to duty-related trauma that may lead to the development of PTSD, and that direct, physical exposure to trauma may not be necessary to increase risk for PTSD in this population.”
What can be done to reduce stress at a public safety answering point? There are several steps management can take to help their workforce deal with traumatic calls.
First of all, just being there for your employees can create a calmer atmosphere. Check in with agents after a particularly rough call, to see if they’re okay. Allow them to take a break before they move on to the next emergency, to regain their composure. Letting your PSAP agents know that you are looking out for their best interests, and that you understand their stress, can go a long way towards reducing tension in the workplace.
Secondly, implement a system of Critical Incident Stress Debriefings (CSID). Giving PSAP agents the opportunity to discuss their reactions to traumatic calls in this supportive group crisis intervention program is a proven way to reduce the occurrence of PTSD in employees.
In order for a CSID to work properly, each small group session should have two leaders: a mental health professional and a peer support professional – in this case, another 911 agent. The group discussion should take place after the traumatic event is over, and once those involved feel emotionally ready to talk about it.
There are seven steps in a CSID meeting, each just as important as the next:
1. Introduction: Everyone introduces themselves, and the leaders explain how the CSID will work. Participants are told that contributions to the discussion are purely voluntary, so that no one feels uncomfortable.
2. Facts: The group goes over the facts of the event together, not delving into details, but simply reviewing what happened.
3. Thoughts: Leaders ask the group what their thoughts were during the event.
4. Reactions: The group now discusses what their emotional reactions were to the event. What was the worst thing about it for them personally?
5. Symptoms: In this phase, the leaders ask the group to share any symptoms they have experienced since the event, and listen for any related to PTSD.
6. Teaching: At this point, the leaders give the group information letting them see that their thoughts, reactions, and symptoms are normal after experiencing trauma. They also give the group stress management tips.
7. Re-entry: Finally, the leaders wrap up the discussion, giving final explanations and guidance and summarizing what has been said.
Putting programs such as CSIDs into place, as well as creating a supportive atmosphere in your PSAP, can mean the difference between calm employees performing at high levels, and stressed employees in danger of developing PTSD. Taking a few precautions like these are more than worth the payoff in terms of employee satisfaction and well-being.