Two years ago, Nancy Lockhart was sitting in an administrative meeting at St. Joseph County 9-1-1 in Mishawaka, Indiana, where she serves as the Fire Operations Chief. During a roundtable discussion, the executive director asked her what she needed for dispatchers in the communications center and she replied without hesitation, “A Peer Support Team.”
Lockhart has served in various roles at the agency for 29 years. She has her own personal story of survival after handling traumatic events and dealing with the accumulation of stress over time. According to Lockhart, “There are unique problems that create significant amounts of stress for dispatchers just by them carrying out their duties and responsibilities. I did not want any of my dispatchers to experience the same things I did in my career.”
The concept of building a Peer Support Team received full support from Ray Schultz, the Executive Director at St. Joseph County 9-1-1. Lockhart put a call into Jim Marshall at the 911 Training Institute to arrange for formal training and assistance developing the team, which would include Dan Tinkel, the Peer Support Team Leader, and Cindy Foster, Shift Coordinator. Both would play critical roles in implementing the team into operations and then leading it.
Tinkel and Foster each have 20+ years of service in public-safety for agencies in St. Joseph County and both eagerly welcomed the opportunity to lead the Peer Support Team.
St. Joseph County 9-1-1 provides dispatch services to 8 police departments and 7 fire departments. It is staffed by 78 dispatchers who work 13 at a time per shift. There are 11 people who were selected to attend specialized training and now serve on the agency’s Peer Support Team.
“There are times when dispatchers need to come together and just talk about the calls they handle”, said Foster. “Things like Employee Assistance Programs are good, but many don’t completely understand the work of a 9-1-1 dispatcher; who better to understand than a peer who does the same job as you.”
Foster described the training as brutal, but wonderful, because it opened her eyes to a lot of emotions she was harboring from prior calls. “The training we received helped me tune into myself, which will better help me now tune into my peers to help them.”
Since its formation last Fall, the Peer Support Team has activated and responded to help other nearby agencies in the region after critical incidents. “Many agencies in our region don’t have resources like this, so we respond and offer to make ourselves available if called upon”, said Tinkel.
The Peer Support Team recently received national attention when a story by ABC57 News in Indiana went viral. The news story covered special poker chips the Peer Support Team had made for all the dispatchers at St. Joseph County 9-1-1.
“The poker chip idea is based on Alcoholics Anonymous”, said Tinkel. “They use chips to mark milestones in recovery. Many public-safety agencies have challenge coins that create a sense of belonging for their employees. We created the poker chips with our agency’s logo to remind our employees ‘No One Fights Alone’, which is inscribed on the chip.” The chips were handed out to employees for them to keep, so at any time they can present it to a member of the Peer Support Team. By doing so, the Peer Support Team will know that employee needs some type of assistance without words even being said.
Shelly Kroger, recently named the agency’s Quality Assurance Manager, also serves on the Peer Support Team. She contacted county Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) and made special arrangements to have some exercise equipment brought into the communications center. The dispatchers at St. Joseph County 9-1-1 wear wireless headsets, so they are free to get up and move around since they are not tethered to computer systems. The new exercise equipment will allow dispatchers to get up and be active without even leaving the center. The physical exercise is a positive outlet for stress and it prevents dispatchers from being sedentary for their entire shift.
“I want to see positive change in the attitudes and mindsets of dispatchers”, said Foster. “I want our dispatchers to be healthy mentally and physically; the Peer Support Team can help accomplish that.”
According to Lockhart, there are often times dispatchers need support for the calls they handle, calls that do not always qualify for a Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD). The Peer Support Team is not meant to replace resources like CISD and EAPs; it is meant to supplement those resources. CISDs are reactive and only occur after traumatic events. The Peer Support Team is intentionally proactive and team members are available as a resource to help their coworkers before traumatic events. Furthermore, the Peer Support Team can help employees with issues that are not even work-related and connect them to appropriate resources and services.
“I have a pure love for the people who do this job, but I need them to know that they are not the job and the job is not them”, said Lockhart. “We need to return them home so they can live their lives and love their families.”
It is imperative now, maybe more than it ever has been, to have these special teams with formal training available to employees at public-safety agencies, and not just after critical incidents occur, but all the time. St. Joseph County 9-1-1 joins agencies across the nation that have built a Peer Support Team into operations to invest in the wellness of their employees. The 911 Training Institute is proud to partner with them to achieve this mission.