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Dispatchers Police Stress

It has taken a while for me to write this in response to numerous requests from police and fire dispatchers because, frankly, I’ve never been a dispatcher myself. So I had to do a lot of thinking about what dispatchers have told me about their own experiences with police stress, and my own experiences at the other end of the radio.

In approaching the topic of police dispatcher stress the first thing that struck me was how many different kinds of settings police dispatchers work in, and how their work environment can make a big difference in the stress of the job. Like police work on the streets, those who choose this career know what they’re getting into. So dealing with the stress of emergencies is considered “part of the job”. Critical incidents and the police stress they often cause are sometimes difficult to handle and require some post-incident counseling or debriefing. Just like other membrs of the emergency response team, a dispather can handle a hundred situations before one gets to him or her. There’s no reason to address this in depth here since I focus on this subject in other articles which apply to police dispatchers and other emergency workers equally. It shouldn’t matter that the dispatcher is helping co-ordinate the police, fire and EMS personnel from an electronic console miles away. Like air traffic controllers, it takes a special kind of person to be a dispatcher. The essence of the job is being the human being on one end of the electronic lifeline to the people who are actually in harms way. It is no less vital than risking bullets or drunk drivers, even though it seems less glamorous. (At least some of the television reality shows give credit where credit is due to police dispatchers.) The stress is different because you aren’t there in person, but if this really bothers you and you just have to be there in body as well as mind, if you are physically able, you should seriously consider changing jobs because you’ll never be satisfied. If you’re a dispatcher because of a physical limitation that precludes your being on the streets, I suggest you do some ride-alongs and do some heavy thinking about being fortunate enough to have a job that enables you to make a vital contribution. Never forget that a dispatcher Protects and Serves as much as any other public safety professional.

Police dispatchers work alone or in groups. At least in the United States, they work with state-of the-art electronics in more and more departments, even the smaller ones now that Federal grants have brought enhanced 911 and in-car computers to the hinterlands. If they have outdated equipment, at least they can look forward to modernization. However, they may feel isolated in both settings, depending on whether they have good leadership and if they have good working relationships with those on the streets. That feeling of isolation, which also goes with feeling unappreciated, can lead to ongoing stress. Fortunately I have found this to be the rare exception rather than the rule.

In some small to middle size departments police officers sometimes fill in for dispatchers. This can have a salutary effect when they see how hard the job can sometimes be, and if they make a mistake they may be more understanding of your mistakes, hopefully few and far between. In over twenty years as a reserve officer I have seen only one or two problems between police officers and dispatchers. The stress problems I do hear about from dispatchers generally come from those working in either poorly managed communication centers which have numerous dispatchers, from those who work in police departments where everyone’s morale is poor, or dispatchers in com/centers that have less than ideal policies and procedures for handling the major incidents.

It is an unfortunate fact of bureaucratic life that the old Peter Principle still applies. Ambitious people can advance to the highest level their incompetence will permit and then languish there making life miserable for their subordinates. Sad to say, intense desire for status does not equate with leadership ability. A barely adequate dispatcher sometimes becomes a dispatch supervisor because their boss naively thinks they can promote them to a position where they think they can do less harm. That doesn’t mean a mediocre dispatcher who ends up as a supervisor can’t do a good job, but this only happens if they have excellent managerial and human relations skill.

In Massachusetts, towns are historically very independent and loathe to move towards centralized county dispatching. It is typical for small to medium size departments to have their own dispatch centers. While this is a plus in that the dispatchers actually know the police officers they work with and vice versa, there are problems too. Police officers don’t always scan the frequencies of adjacent towns so they aren’t don’t know when the action may be moving their way until notified by their dispatcher. Well managed and designed centralized communications centers do work, and I believe are superior to home-based dispatch. It seems to me ridiculous that I have to carry a list of the police phone numbers of all the towns I am likely to drive through so if I have to call in an emergency on my cell phone I have the appropriate number and don’t have to waste precious time having the state police contact the local police to relay my message. Police dispatchers who work in centralized communications centers may actually have less police stress because they are part of a finely tuned team. They always have back-up and have the capacity to have other dispatchers handle ancillary jobs like calling poison control, the ER for instructions on medical emergencies, family members or others on hostage situations, etc. Let me know what you think.

All communication centers, whether lonely one-person operations or huge communication centers handling several departments or precincts, should have procedures for debriefing those involved in critical incidents, and should have counselors available. The notion of “don’t ask, don’t tell” when it comes to having a post-incident stress reaction still exists here and there. The idea that just because you weren’t present at the scene of the incident, you shouldn’t have a stress reaction is, excuse my bluntness, plain stupid. Dispatchers should be asked, and feel free to discuss their feelings when they’ve been involved in any incident where there was a loss of life, or an extended tense situation even if the outcome was successful. Yes, this is part of the job, but dispatchers like police officers, fire fighters and EMS personnel are human, and subject to what I both acute or delay stress reactions.

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