Fire Dispatch: Controlling PSAP Manager Stress

March 1, 2014
Barry Furey shares how PSAP telecommunicators can cope with stress after being the first point of contact for people in emergencies.

There has been a significant amount of information published concerning stress experienced by telecommunicators. After all, daily life in a Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) is not easy. There is chronic understaffing accompanied by mandatory overtime and a high rate of burnout. These employees, who are typically at the low end of the wage scale, are responsible for making split-second decisions that are often based on incomplete or incorrect information. They are frequently criticized, rarely praised and increasingly the targets of media coverage.

It’s no wonder that a study by the Association of Public-safety Communications Officials (APCO) Inc. found that only 3% of these employees stay the course to retirement age or that recently ranked public safety dispatching among the 14 most stressful jobs in America. A study by Northern Illinois University has also determined that telecommunicators – like their first-responder partners – are subject to critical incident stress. 

The face of the incident

But what about the people who lead them? These are people who in many cases came up through the ranks and remain on the job. Little has been discussed regarding the emotional burden carried by PSAP managers – PSAP manager stress. While in many instances PSAP managers don’t handle a single call, they are ultimately responsible for the handling of every call. If an error occurs, it’s not going to be the offending employee who is interviewed by the local or even the national news, but rather the boss. Regardless of what internal personnel action may be taken, it is the PSAP manager that is called to publicly answer. And it is he or she who becomes the face of the incident.

When the dust settles, there are bound to be additional questions asked by the hiring authority that are no less comfortable than those presented by the media. Tapes of 9-1-1 calls have become an integral part of many news stories, and the constant review of critical incidents over and over again means that PSAP managers are repeatedly dealing with recordings of the same crisis. After a while, enough is enough.

Of course, with the rate of turnover previously mentioned, the PSAP manager not only has to depend on the actions of employees, but must work to recruit and maintain them. In tough economic times, this may not be difficult, but when the economy is good, the pickings are often slim. This process is complicated by the amount of background checks and testing required that often discourage qualified candidates because of the length of the process. The unfortunate economic truth is that the greater benefits and job stability formerly associated with public-sector positions can no longer be dangled as a carrot. During the recent downturn, public agencies furloughed workers, froze vacancies and raised employee insurance premiums, making government positions less secure and desirable than before.

Differences in generational motivation can also have an impact on recruiting, with the private sector able to offer greater flexibility in offering attractive packages. The end result of all of this is that PSAPs may not only be working with less than optimum staffing, but also with a high percentage of inexperienced staffing. When veteran telecommunicators depart for greener pastures, they take valuable institutional knowledge with them. As call volumes and complexity increase, this burden is placed squarely on the shoulders of the PSAP manager. An even more vexing problem can arise when the PSAP also maintains a technology support staff. The skill sets required for these positions are in high-dollar demand, and recruiting competition even stiffer.

Yet another area of stress comes from the budgetary process. Far from being a “given,” costs for 9-1-1 and related services are carefully analyzed and oftentimes the PSAP manager must compete for funds with the very agencies that he or she serves. Will the fire department get a new quint or the dispatch center a new telephone system? Will EMS receive a new ambulance or the PSAP two new call takers? Many times, the money all comes from the same pot, making situations like the above far from hypothetical. The shortened life cycle of digital versus analog equipment in the PSAP increases the frequency of this conflict. And with the implementation of the national communications systems FirstNet and Next Generation 9-1-1 on the horizon, it’s likely that even more requests for big bucks will follow.

Since the workplace dynamics of dispatch centers is not likely to change anytime soon, how can the PSAP manager learn to best cope with the demands of the job? While there is no “one size fits all” solution, there are steps that can be taken to help cope with stress. First, identify your trigger points. What is it that makes you feel stress? Also, identify what doesn’t make you stressed. Even in the toughest times, there are still positives on which you may focus. Establish a support network. This can be family, friends, clergy or peers. Peers are especially important, because you will likely find the issues that are troubling you are not yours alone. Talking to someone else who truly understands the landscape can be quite beneficial. Many agencies have employee assistance programs that are recommended to telecommunicators, but are often ignored by management. Use online or local references to increase your knowledge of the impact of stress.

For centuries, public safety has been a macho culture. When I began my fire service career in 1970, we would attack room-and-contents fires with a booster line and no breathing protection. We were, after all, “smoke eaters.” Anyone who was affected by the tragedies we saw was somehow less than a man.

Regardless of your gender and rank, take a step into the 21st century and recognize that cumulative stress and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) exist in the PSAP for both dispatchers and managers, and that it is OK not to feel OK. That’s a message that needs to be acknowledged.

About the Author

Barry Furey

BARRY FUREY, who is a Firehouse Contributing Editor, provides consulting and training services in emergency communications. He is the former director of the Raleigh-Wake Emergency Communications Center in North Carolina. During his 50-year public safety career, he has managed 9-1-1 centers and served as a volunteer fire officer in three other states. In 2005, Furey received a life membership in the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) International for his continued work in emergency communications. Furey was inducted into the Firehouse Hall of Fame in 2017.

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