Special Guest Writer Pam Opoka, ENP
“I opened my registration email and clicked on the link to the live session. My computer screen opened and there was Jim Marshall playing the conga drums while “Oye Como Va” by Santana was playing softly in the background. He continued playing for a minute or so, while giggling a little because he knew that most of the audience would not recognize this classic cha-cha-cha circa 1962! What a great way to break the ice and make the audience feel instantly comfortable,“ said Richard Hedrick, Raymore Police Department Dispatcher.
In early 2020, when the coronavirus came to the United States and quickly turned into a global pandemic, many lives were changed forever. The internet became the new normal for almost every aspect of everyday life—online shopping, ordering food and curbside pickups, virtual meetings, tours, concerts, plays and sporting events. Working from home and homeschooling our children became urgent when businesses, schools and daycares closed with no notice, creating immediate stress on households. Masks and personal protection equipment, hand sanitizer, cleaning supplies, paper towels and toilet paper were scarce. The news channels were showing overwhelmed hospitals at capacity with a shortage of ventilators and soaring numbers of global death statistics. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed safety guidelines, which affected our agencies’ policies and procedures. We could not have outside food delivered to our Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) for fear of contamination. We had to walk one way only in hallways and socially distance at least 6 feet apart with plastic partitions between our consoles. We were asked about symptoms and had our body temperature taken before entering many facilities. Additionally, during this time, many of our communities were experiencing unrest and some staff had to walk through protests to get to work. Many businesses temporarily shut down during the stay-at-home orders and many more shuttered their doors permanently later. People lost their jobs and the economy suffered---even with stimulus money (relief package) issued by the government.
As PSAP essential employees, we must maintain credentialing for our jobs. We had to invent new online training opportunities and stay safe while doing so. These new challenges, along with new unprecedented scopes of work, affected our mental wellbeing. Many people who never had mental health issues in the past developed anxiety and depression.
One night, Jim Marshall provided an hour-long live session on Facebook where he was sitting in his home office, wearing a cozy sweater, discussing a chapter in his book while viewers asked him questions in the comments section. This sparked an idea—could we do this in a more formal way to reach hundreds of 9-1-1 professionals and potentially help them get through these unprecedented times? When approached with this idea, Marshall said, “Yes! Let’s figure it out together! We need to think of an out-of-the-box approach to bring resiliency tools to our 9-1-1 folks.”
In 2018, Marshall published the book The Resilient 9-1-1 Professional. It contains almost 400 pages of personal stories from 9-1-1 professionals about the secondary trauma they face working shifts on a 9-1-1 console. It also provides tips and tricks on how to combat that trauma, so it does not turn into Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The pandemic seemed to be a great time to introduce this book to our 9-1-1 colleagues during the continuing uncertainty.
The National Emergency Number Association’s Wellness Committee Peer Support Co-Chairs Pam Opoka and JC Ferguson contacted workgroup members to raise the idea and gauge interest. Workgroup member Brian Crumpler worked with his administrative staff to purchase books for all their PSAP employees in the State of Virginia, using wellness grant money. Opoka sent out a survey to over 700 dispatchers in the Mid-America Regional Council’s Kansas City metropolitan area. Ferguson polled his staff at Austin-Travis County EMS Comm Center in Austin, Texas. Together, these three “Admins” and their agencies produced almost 500 interested people to pilot this new idea.
Within days, the 911 Training Institute’s staff worked with Virtual Academy to secure a platform for online quizzes, which provided 4 CEUs for the participants and digital printable certificates of completion. A video platform site was also secured to support the volume of live participants for the pilot project called “The Resilient 9-1-1 Pro Continuing Education Experience.”
The three “Admins” worked with 911 Training Institute staff to survey participants on which chapters within the four-section book they wanted to discuss over the four-week pilot project. Once survey results were calculated, the “Admins” used the polling data to guide training curriculum decisions for wellness tracks within their agencies and the four highest ranking chapters were chosen for the pilot experience:
Chapter 3: Understanding 9-1-1 Stress and Nine Unique Risk Factors Faced by Every Dispatcher
Chapter 10: When Your Give-a-Damn is Busted: Rebuilding Your Life After Compassion Fatigue
Chapter 16: The Power of 9-1-1 Peer Support: The First Line of Care and Prevention for the Frontline of Dispatch
Chapter 18: How to Inspire Employees to Stay and Excel: The Power of Servant Leadership
To better meet the shift-work schedules, two 90-minute live sessions were offered each week; one for AM and one for PM shifts. These sessions, along with comments in the chat and Q&A sections, were recorded for later viewing privileges with paid membership links. Additionally, Marshall secured several surprise guest speakers, who popped in during the live sessions.
The pilot sessions began June 22, 2020 and ended July 15, 2020. With the goal to give 9-1-1 professionals a safe place to discuss their thoughts and feelings with Marshall as a mental health professional to guide conversations, it became a co-teaching environment and was an instant success.
Brian Crumpler said, “Hundreds of people felt a source of comfort knowing that they were not alone. This project was not entirely about the book. As leaders in our Comm Centers, it was about providing mental health and wellness resources to our employees during a time of uncertainty.”
Amanda Danser, Leavenworth County Sheriff’s Office Dispatcher, said, “We take our work home with us and while that’s not unique to telecommunicators, the unique part is that we bring the WHAT of our work home with us (the calls, the memories, etc.), and we also bring the HOW of our work home with us. We multi-task; we listen with split-ear techniques for many hours at a time. It’s hard for us to concentrate on one person talking to us and not constantly listen for the surrounding conversations. Are we truly present in the moment most times for our families? No. It was nice to talk about this in the safe environment of the book club.”
No one thought this pandemic would last this long—and here we are coming up on almost a year and bracing for the second wave of COVID-19 positives as the weather turns cold. The first wave of the vaccine is being released to high-risk hospital and public safety professionals and long-term care facilities; some are getting their second doses of the vaccine. Be sure to stay safe as this disease continues to spread in our communities: Wear your mask, wash your hands, maintain social distance and get tested if you have symptoms. Consider reading The Resilient 9-1-1 Professional and join the book club sessions to help navigate your mental wellbeing. Take care of yourself and watch your colleagues for signs. If you see something, say something. You never know when that moment of care you show to someone makes a difference in their wellbeing.
About the Author
Pam Opoka, ENP, is the Public Safety Training Coordinator and Peer Support Program Planner at the Mid-America Regional Council (MARC). She has over 25 years of experience in 9-1-1 and has a Master’s Degree in Public Administration, with certification in Performance Management, from Kansas University. Pam is active in university research projects and workgroups within National Emergency Number Association (NENA) and is currently the co-chair of the Wellness Committee Peer Support Workgroup. You may contact her at email@example.com.
The Mid-America Regional Council (MARC) is the nonprofit association of city and county governments and the metropolitan planning organization for the Greater Kansas City region. Governed by a board of directors made up of local elected officials, MARC serves a bistate region-with a population of approximately 2 million. MARC provides a forum for the region to work together to advance social, economic and environmental progress, promoting regional cooperation and developing innovative solutions through leadership, planning, and action.
MARC coordinates the Regional 911 System, which handles 4.6 million emergency and non-emergency calls each year. The regional system is coordinated through a number of committees and task forces made up of representatives of local governments. The system is served by PSAPs operated by government agencies. An interlocal cooperation agreement, signed by counties in the region, formalized the cooperation among governments for the 9-1-1 emergency telephone number system. The coordination for 9-1-1 services ensures that residents across the region have access to the same responsive, high-quality 9-1-1 service in an emergency. Standardization of equipment allows local communities to share a common support system. Cooperation allows communities to stay abreast of new ideas and technology and build a cohesive 9-1-1 system for the future. MARC implemented text-to-9-1-1 in February 2016 and Rapid SOS in September 2018.
About Austin Travis Emergency Communications Center
The City of Austin's Emergency Medical Services Department provides 9-1-1 emergency medical response to the citizens of Austin and Travis County serving a population of over 2.2M citizens in a service region of over 1,039 square miles. While most of the assistance we give to the community is medical in nature, the smallest part of what we do involves truly time-critical life-threatening emergencies. Yet everything we do is about service: service to our patients, their families and loved ones; service to our community; and service to the people who make up Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
Need help? Call the MARC Peer Support line: 816-701-8212 to talk confidentially to a 9-1-1 specific peer supporter, who understands your unique job duties.