By Special Guest Writer
Communications Training Officer
As a dispatcher for 19 months for a small communications center, I was honored to attend my first ever National Emergency Number Association (NENA) conference this year. When I say that it was exactly what I needed the moment I needed it, I could not be more sincere.
Up to this point, I was ready to be just part of the statistic that walked away from public-safety. It has been a year full of heartache, disappointment, and frustration. So, it seemed absolutely appropriate for me to attend Adam Timm’s breakout session on “Beating 9-1-1 Burnout”. I will have to admit that I came to class unprepared. I sat in an available seat next to a woman named Andrea. When Adam handed me a handout, I anxiously started searching for a pen. Not having one, I turned to Andrea and asked her if she had an extra. She did. We began talking. I confessed to her that I am now our small dispatch center’s CTO and upon my return to work I will be training my first trainee. She shared with me that it can seem intimidating, but reassured me I would be okay.
As Adam began his lesson, I found my heart beginning to hurt. I realized I all too quickly was experiencing the emotional exhaustion part of burnout. I found comfort in the fact that Adam also experienced burn out very early in his career. Somewhere in the middle of his lesson he looked at me and asked if I was okay. Shocked and taken aback, I quickly said, “Yes”, as a reflex response. Not knowing that I would later be faced with the opportunity to share the fact that I was indeed not okay. Adam admitted to the class that he had lost his train of thought after he asked me. For the first time, I felt that I had been seen, because this is a job that we often go unseen. It was the first of many moments that I would be seen at the NENA conference.
At the close of his session, Andrea asked me where I was off to next. I told her I was torn between attending another session on mental health or a training session. Andrea persuaded me to attend the training session since I was the new CTO. I agreed and we headed off. When we got there, the room was full and I found two seats in the back that we quickly filled and I met the wonderful Roxanne Van Gundy, CMCP, ENP, RPL. At the time, I had no idea this woman would become so influential to me.
I sat through her session taking away some key training tips. I hung around afterwards to simply ask if she had any suggestions for a first-time trainer. Her advice: 1) be yourself; 2) learn their learning styles; 3) find out how they are going to accept corrections. After walking away from that session, I felt a little more confident in my ability to train. I told my coworker about my new found knowledge and she asked if I was more confident in training. I admitted a little, but I’m still terrified.
I then attended a session about retention of high school students and the Bx3 program, instructed by Lori Henricksen. It was amazing to me to learn that high school students can actually take a course that will allow them to see what public-safety dispatching is. We are a small center and we have been working to create a Public Safety Telecommunicator course for high school students as a summer program. This is still just an idea for us to start showing the public what we actually do on a day-to-day basis. I believe this session gave me ideas on how to implement this into operations for the future.
The following day, after I ate lunch and headed to my first session, I saw Roxanne in the Expo hall and had to say hi in passing and she invited me to Natalie Hunt’s wellness session. I was unsure if I wanted to attend because I had seen a lot of different sessions that I wanted to attend that day, but decided that if I was asked to go somewhere and do something then I would because by this point I realized that people know more than I do. After I attended Gary Hill’s session on “Is Your Call-Taking Creating Positive Ripples”, I learned 9-1-1 callers, even the frequent callers, are calling because they don’t know what else to do and we are doing a service to them by being there and helping them.
I attended Natalie’s wellness session. Upon arrival, I was greeted by "Chase the Therapy Dog" and I was able to give him some friendly pets and love. Because I showed up a little early, I caught the tail end of North Carolina’s presentation about wellness and was given a book called, “North Carolina NENA 911 Wellness Workbook”, that is full of amazing tips and tricks on how to manage physical and mental health. I walked into Natalie’s wellness session feeling a little more educated on the topic than some others in the group because I have had type 1 diabetes since I was 16 and have taken several courses for the last nine years on how to eat right to help manage my diabetes. Although I have all the knowledge, Natalie was the very first person to tell me how I should be grocery shopping with the 4-4-3-3 method: 4 different proteins, 4 different vegetables, 3 different fruits, and 3 different complex carbohydrates, as well as the art of meal prep. Natalie gave an amazing presentation on the topic and shared the success stories she’s had with her clients who have started creating healthy habits in their own lives. She also stated the strict guidelines of some diets often fail because we all have moments of weakness, and that even when we give into the weakness it doesn’t undo all the good things that we’ve done.
After the session, Roxanne approached me and asked me if I was okay. At that moment, I didn’t feel that I could keep up the facade any longer and I admitted that in fact I was not okay… that I had been dealing with a lot of burn out and felt that I was lacking the support I so desperately needed. Roxanne sat with me. She listened. She cared. She validated my feelings and started to introduce me to some people who wanted to support me as a member of the 9-1-1 community.
I met Rebekah Biedermann, CMCP, ENP, the Communications Supervisor at a police department in California, who gave me her contact information and told me that if I needed something to reach out anytime. I met Ryan Dedmon, who wanted to know where I wanted my career to go. Ryan introduced me to Jim Marshall, who was a very happy man and inquired about my interests outside of being a dispatcher. Ryan invited me to go with him to the next session and I agreed.
I met Claudia Hall on our way there who said she was well acquainted with my home state. The panel in the session included Ashley Valenzuela, also known as the "Raspy Dispatcher" on her podcast, and Dru Clarke, Dominique Mathis, and Andrea King-Smith from Carbyne. They talked about the reasons we need to continue to be our authentic selves, even in the workplace… tattoos, different hairstyles, and different colored hair doesn’t stop you from being the best dispatcher that you can be. Self-expression is something that we should wear proudly and be unapologetic. Being different brings different perspectives, so be yourself because there’s no better you than you. Don’t be ashamed of who you are because you do bring something to the table. That spoke to me because I felt that my happiness and sweetness had been set on the back burner for a while so I could fit in with the feel of the workplace. Hearing the fact that it’s okay to be different was something that was heart-warming and allowed me to self-reflect.
I then attended the Women In 9-1-1 (WIN) awards ceremony where I was honored to celebrate with the amazing women who worked hard and applied for scholarships to be able to attend the career-changing conference called NENA.
I had the honor of attending many more sessions, as well as meeting many more extraordinary people who I now get to call friends. This was my first experience attending the NENA conference and it truly provided a new outlook to my career. When I returned home, I shared with my husband that it was amazing to me that so many different individuals saw that my light was growing dim and they were more than willing to share their fire with me. Thank you so much to the wonderful people I was able to connect with during my time at the conference. NENA is providing an incredible opportunity for the 9-1-1 community to learn, grow, reach out, and support one another. It will be an experience that lives in my heart for a life-time.
About the Author:
December Mortimore is a Communications Training Officer at Rice County Emergency Communications (KS). She was born and raised in Kansas and now proudly serves the same county where she grew up. In 2021, December and her family lost her oldest brother to suicide and she witnessed a fatal traffic collision that killed the driver of the vehicle. That year was full of trauma and tragic moments, until she applied and interviewed for the position of Public Safety Dispatcher. After experiencing all the heartache of that year, December wanted to be part of a career where she could help people in their worst moments. December has received her center’s EPICC Award by providing Exemplary, Professional, Impartial, Courteous, and Compassionate service during calls, as well as the “Give a Life” Award. She is now a Communications Training Officer and is an instructor in the Public Safety Telecommunicator 1 training course. When she is not working, she loves spending time with her husband and their 22-month-old daughter. December plans to continue her growth in knowledge and experience at her communications center and strives to be the best telecommunicator she can be.