How Technology Can Reduce the Emotional Toll on the Public Safety Workforce

A dispatcher with Anne Arundel County Fire Department answers a 911 emergency call. Between 18% and 24% of these professionals exhibit PTSD symptoms.

A dispatcher with Anne Arundel County Fire Department answers a 911 emergency call. Between 18% and 24% of these professionals exhibit PTSD symptoms. Alex Edelman / AFP via Getty Images

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COMMENTARY | Studies show that up to 24% of emergency telecommunication personnel exhibit PTSD symptoms. More attention and resources need to be dedicated to these workers to help alleviate the pressure.

Public safety organizations are facing new challenges that are stretching resources to the limit, including the scale and frequency of complex emergencies. Incidents considered significant a decade ago, such as mass shootings, have sadly become more routine. As a result, the risk of mental and emotional stress on first responders at all levels is more common.

One of the situations that weigh heavily on first responders is the so-called missed connection. Following a major incident, leaders perform an after-the-fact analysis to examine an organization’s response, from the first call to the final report. It’s during this analysis they find missed connections that could have potentially helped responders in real time.

These missed connections, also known as operational blind spots, can haunt responders for years. Second-guessed judgment calls take a toll on the decision-maker. Over time, self-doubt can impact a responder’s job performance and overall health, leading to missed workdays and higher turnover rates.

Without proper help and support, those affected face many potential health risks, including addiction, depression and post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD). A study by Dr. Michelle Lilly examined the prevalence of PTSD in emergency phone line operators and found that between 18% and 24% of these professionals exhibit PTSD symptoms.

Stress In the Communications Center

Mental stress is different at each level of an organization. Police officers, firefighters and medics might experience it from what they witness at the scene of an emergency. Analysts and tactical dispatchers face stress because it’s their job to inform and direct responders in dangerous, life-threatening situations.

Personnel in emergency communications centers, however, experience stress from several entry points because they are the first link in the public safety chain.

Depending on the nature of the emergency, caller emotions range from relaxed to hysterical, and each call presents a new set of challenges. If the caller is in an unsafe or dangerous situation, telecommunicators are inundated with audible trauma. They must cut through the noise and emotion to not only calm frantic callers, but also acquire relevant information to pass on to responders in the field.

Finally, there is the emotional and mental stress of not always knowing the outcome of a call. In the case of life-or-death situations, telecommunicators often question if they made the right decision and if they did everything they could to render the right aid.

Without proper self-care or attention from supervisors and managers, telecommunicators who face extreme mental and emotional stress can easily slip into depression and burnout. If ignored for long periods of time, it not only affects job performance, but it can also affect physical health and mental well-being.

A Growing Concern

Fortunately, awareness around mental health and well-being for public safety workers is growing within agencies and the public. Organizations like Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials, National Emergency Number Association, and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration are shedding light on the issue and providing information resources.

Agency leaders can also take steps to ensure telecommunicators have the means to reduce mental and emotional stress, including access to counseling resources. Other considerations include adequate staffing and scheduling matched to demand to ensure personnel aren’t overloaded and have time to unwind.

Technology’s Supporting Role

There are also many technological advances supporting the well-being of first responders available. For example, deriving insights from the routine data generated through daily operations enables managers of emergency communications centers  to analyze hours worked by their staff as well as the number and type of calls received. This can help align resources to workload and identify staff in need of time off. Modern computer-aided dispatch solutions can help ease the burden on users. By providing a simple unified interface, telecommunicators can quickly access and assess diverse information and act accordingly.

Tools that leverage artificial intelligence and machine learning offer new levels of assistive insights to telecommunicators. For example, autonomous background processes can quickly and effectively scan for similarities, anomalies, links and patterns across the entirety of calls coming into the emergency communications centers. These capabilities act as a second set of eyes, reducing stress on both call center veterans and new employees still building their knowledge base.

Additionally, by connecting disparate systems through a cloud-based collaboration space, agencies can share and receive vital data within their own organizations and across neighboring agencies. Having real-time access to information as emergencies unfold provides greater situational awareness and reduces redundant workflows for an already stressed and overburdened workforce.

Telecommunicators in emergency communications centers are on the front lines of every emergency. They routinely hear the screams, cries and pleas for help from people experiencing a life-changing event. That’s why it’s essential to take every opportunity to support mental and emotional well-being for these essential workers. Ensuring proper care is the responsibility of agency leaders and managers of emergency communications centers, and modern tools can help mitigate pressures and instill confidence in decision-making.

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