Recently, there was a training class for 40 newly hired public-safety dispatchers who are all starting their careers at various agencies in California. Their eyes were full of light, excited to be starting a new career they hoped would last 20+ years. These bright, young minds were eager for training.
The instructor was teaching them about stress and giving them personal tools to help them better manage it in healthy ways. And that is when one dispatcher raised her hand to ask a question: “How do I combat the internal stress caused by my coworkers and supervisors because I find that more stressful than the 911 calls I answer from the public?”
There is no easy answer to that question. Public-safety dispatchers are chronically exposed to significant amounts of trauma simply by carrying out their duties and responsibilities. Handling emergency radio traffic from field-responders and answering 911 emergency calls from the public is no easy day at work. Generally speaking, police officers, firefighters, and EMTs do not call out emergency radio traffic when things are going well, just like citizens do not call 911 when they are having a good day. Dispatchers usually talk to people on the worst day of their lives: people who call to report various incidents and request emergency police/fire assistance. These incidents do not always have positive outcomes.
It is then no surprise that dispatchers can experience diminished compassion satisfaction and burnout. The positive feelings dispatchers derive from the competent performance of fulfilling their duties can quickly subside when they did everything right, but the outcome of the incident was still terrible. The emotional exhaustion can be overwhelming for some dispatchers, reducing feelings of accomplishment. This can have adverse effects on individual attitudes, as well as team morale throughout the entire center.
As a result, sometimes public-safety emergency communication centers can be toxic working environments. The trauma and stress breed negativity, which can spread like a virus. “Burnout is so prevalent in our line of work, not really from excessive stress, but just caring too long with so little reward”, says Erin Allwardt, a Dispatch Training Supervisor at Calhoun County Consolidated Dispatch Authority in Michigan with over 10 years of service. “We work in an industry where we only hear the negative, and it’s a very thankless job.” But Calhoun County Dispatch has a creative way of addressing the negativity in order to change the culture in their center.
Calhoun County Dispatch handles communications for 20 fire departments, 9 law enforcement agencies, and 3 ambulance companies. They are budgeted for 38 employees, from front-line dispatchers to the executive leaders. Their staff ranges in experience from supervisors with 25+ years down to newly hired dispatchers who are in training only a couple of months into their careers. When you walk up the ramp to enter their communications center, there is a large bulletin board in the main hallway that was recently christened “You Take the Cake Board”.
In 2016, supervisors had this large bulletin board mounted on the wall in a prime location in the center. “Everyone passes by it when they are coming or going from work, so supervisors realized this board presented a unique opportunity to highlight our employees”, said Allwardt. “It started as a grass roots effort to thank peers and focus on the positive things we do… it was simple and inexpensive.” First designated as the “Shout Out Board”, the bulletin board has changed themes several times in the last couple of years, but its purpose remains the same: a chance for dispatchers to spotlight the good work they do that sometimes goes unnoticed and unappreciated.
The newly named You Take the Cake Board has little cut-outs of cakes that employees use to write nominations for coworkers to recognize them for extraordinary work. The cut-outs are then pinned up to the bulletin board for all to see. These nominations can be for individual employees or for the entire team on a shift. According to Allwardt, it is fun to see employees come into work and see they have something pinned up on the board that recognizes their good work.
Although these are generally simple “atta-boys”, they do have potential to become formal commendations, as was such the case about a year ago. A dispatcher handled a call of a robbery that just occurred and did an exceptional job of gathering necessary information and getting it broadcasted to police officers quickly. The alleged suspect was apprehended quickly without incident. That dispatcher was first recognized on the bulletin board, but the dispatcher’s actions in handling that critical incident won her a formal commendation.
“Our dispatchers experience burnout too, but a little bit of recognition reminds them of the passion they had when they first started this work, and that’s how we are changing the culture in our center”, said Allwardt.
Executive leaders also created a private group on Facebook that is exclusive to the dispatchers serving at Calhoun County Dispatch. “Our Facebook group is successful in creating a platform for our employees to communicate with each other and build relationships”, said Kim Grafton, the Deputy Director at Calhoun County Dispatch. Employees use the social media site to find shift-trades to cover staffing, post news/current events in the 911 industry, share educational tools for training, and celebrate birthdays and anniversaries. “There is a lot of fun back-and-forth [communication between employees on Facebook] and I would highly encourage it for any center to assist in cultural development. It has been such a blessing here.”
Find a creative way to spotlight the employees in your center and highlight the good work they do. Remind them their work makes a world of difference, despite the negative outcomes of some incidents. Change the way your employees think about the job by helping them focus on the positive. By doing so, you will change the attitudes of individual employees and teams of shifts, which will raise morale in your center.