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Dispatchers Must Find a Happy Place for Emotional Survival

Updated: Jul 19, 2021

By Ryan Dedmon, MA

911 Training Institute

With all the stress and heartache that comes with a career in emergency communications, it is absolutely vital to find an escape in order to survive.

All you have to do is turn on the evening news: vehicle pursuits, riots, injury traffic collisions, robberies, violent assaults, natural disasters, etc. Dispatchers handle these calls every day. The men and women working in emergency communications respond to society’s worst nightmares. But at what cost to them?  Incoming call-volume, talking with frantic callers, prioritizing calls for service, managing the status of resources, and feelings of helplessness are only a few stressors that weigh on dispatchers every shift.  The constant hypervigilance, dissociative emotionality, and exposure to traumatic incidents can have a heavy toll on the overall well-being of police and fire dispatchers. It can be overwhelming to the ordinary human emotional response. Dispatchers are, after all, only human and they experience the same wide range of emotions as the rest of us.  Therefore, it becomes vital for dispatchers to find a healthy escape so they can survive the daily stresses of working in emergency communications.

The human brain is a powerful thing, but even it needs time… time to process the things your senses perceive. The ability to touch, taste, see, smell, and hear allow us to experience the world around us. However, sometimes our senses can get overwhelmed and our brains can have trouble processing the signals sent by our senses. This is called sensory overload. Although it can happen on the most pleasant of occasions, like on your wedding day, it is more often associated with something traumatic. A traumatic event can easily cause sensory overload. The overstimulated senses might cause the brain to malfunction in processing the thoughts and feelings in reaction to the event. Imagine then having a job where you work emergencies and traumatic incidents all day long, a job like police or fire dispatching.

It starts in an emergency communications center with dispatchers answering 9-1-1 calls. They hear the cries, screams, shrieks, and pleas of people calling for help. Dispatchers’ auditory sense can be quickly overwhelmed because that is the only sense they have to work with, since they cannot see/touch/taste/smell callers over the phone. As a result, dispatchers sometimes formulate imaginary pictures in their brains to help them understand incidents. Dispatchers often imagine the worst in order to help make sense of what they can only hear. It is like your brain racing pedal-to-the-metal at 100 mph. It is easy to see how a dispatcher’s brain can then be overwhelmed when feelings of the heart try to catch up and understand thoughts of the mind. Without learning to slow down, the brain can run away and the heart can burst with a flood of emotions, sometimes causing fatigue, burnout and other occupational stress-related injuries. In order to help prevent this from occurring, dispatchers must find a place to allow their brains the time necessary to slow down and process all they have handled.

Simply put, dispatchers must find a “happy place” and they must make regular visits. A happy place… that place you go and all your worries disappear. Everyone has one. The geographic location is unimportant; instead, it is what that place does to recharge your brain and spirit by providing a place of rest that is important. As the brain decompresses from information overload it is more able to process thoughts and feelings, something that historically has been unaddressed in the world of emergency communications, until recently. Addressing troubled thoughts and feelings is a healthy response to distress, and regularly visiting that happy place provides dispatchers a safe, comfortable environment to do just that. And that is what will give dispatchers the strength not just to survive, but also thrive in a career that might otherwise destroy their humanity.

Follow this link to read how I found my happy place: Finding My Happy Place Somewhere Sunny and 75.

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