Fire Dispatch: Dispatcher Wellness: An Overlooked Concern

Jan. 1, 2020
Barry Furey sheds light on the worrisome matter of dispatcher stress and physical risk.

Firefighter fitness is a high priority. After all, firefighters might be called upon at any time to raise an unwieldy ladder, drag a heavy hose or rescue an injured citizen. These activities will occur while they wear 50 lbs. or more of gear and operate under extremely hazardous conditions. Firefighting tests strength, cardio fitness and reaction to stress. It’s no wonder that, according to the NFPA, about 40 percent of on scene line-of-duty deaths in 2018 were a result of cardiac events. 

Although this focus on suppression personnel is certainly necessary, there is one member of the team whose health often is ignored. That team member is the dispatcher, or telecommunicator. Although not directly subjected to the physical dangers at the accident scene or on the fireground, there are a number of occupational hazards that negatively impact dispatchers’ health and that can diminish their overall well-being. And when a dispatcher suffers, it can have an adverse effect on firefighter safety.

Junk food & Red Bull

The first widespread occupational hazard for dispatchers is poor diet. Unlike many fire stations, many dispatch centers lack all but rudimentary foodservice facilities. Although some do possess properly designed kitchens, all too often, meals are stored in a mini-fridge, heated in the microwave and eaten at the console. This leads to consuming a small variety of prepackaged and prepared dinners or to ordering fast food. Depending on the community, take-out options might be restricted by the sparsity of restaurants, in general, and by an even smaller number that are open 24/7.

Of course, all of these food items must be washed down by something, and this choice traditionally has been a caffeinated beverage. This has morphed from coffee to diet colas to energy drinks. One need only visit a dispatch center or view social media posts to appreciate the consumption of the latter. Telecommunicators who normally work 12-hour shifts increasingly are held over six hours due to staffing shortages, and they fuel their need to remain alert with Red Bull, Monster and the like. Although a relatively new phenomenon, there is growing concern about side effects. A study that was published in Journal of the American Heart Association found that energy drinks raise blood pressure and change the heart’s pattern of electrical energy.

Sedentary & stressed

The sedentary nature of the position also can put dispatchers at risk. Unlike periods of peak activity that are required for firefighters, there is no requirement for the physical tasks that are normally associated with suppression. The majority of most dispatch shifts—absent any breaks—often is spent sitting in the same position. Although the comparison between lack of mobility and smoking a pack of cigarettes a day might well be an oversimplification, constant confinement to the same chair for 8 or more hours has its drawbacks. According to the Mayo Clinic, “Research has linked sitting for long periods of time with a number of health concerns. They include obesity and a cluster of conditions—increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist and abnormal cholesterol levels—that make up metabolic syndrome. Too much sitting overall and prolonged periods of sitting also seem to increase the risk of death from cardiovascular disease and cancer.” The Mayo Clinic also notes that an hour or more of moderately intense physical activity every day can help to counteract these effects.

To this end, some new dispatch centers include workout rooms, and others have exercise equipment at the consoles.

Although not present at the scene, dispatchers face similar stressors as firefighters. A 2012 study by Northern Illinois University found that indirect exposure to trauma placed telecommunicators at risk for developing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Many states and agencies already recognize this potential and honored worker’s compensation claims that were related to communications center duties. This recognition, however, isn’t universal. (The peculiarities of Colorado law require you to actually see—not just hear—an event to be covered by worker’s compensation.) The advent of Next Generation 9-1-1, which will deliver still photos and streaming videos of the emergency, will close this loophole but will increase greatly telecommunicator exposure to stress. (As of this writing, Colorado legislators are working to amend their legislation.)

Unfortunately, stress also can add to already-poor eating habits. The Harvard Medical School reports that stress releases cortisol, which increases the desire for sweet and fatty foods. Both are high in calories. Conversely, the Government of South Australia Health indicates that a poor diet can add to stress. For dispatchers, this can lead to a vicious cycle of failure. Combined with rotating shift schedules and extended periods of overtime, which disrupt sleep schedules, these factors contribute to a decline in well-being.

Perhaps the best synopsis of these effects is provided by a 2015 paper entitled, “Predictors of Obesity and Physical Health Complaints Among 911 Telecommunicators.” Of the more than 750 individuals who were surveyed, more than 82 percent reported a body mass index that placed them in the overweight or obese category. This result is 50 percent more than the general public. Responses indicate that the problem worsens with increased length of service. Numerous health issues also were noted, including the use of alcohol related to PTSD. In their concluding remarks, the authors underscored the need for the “development of adapted prevention and intervention efforts” as “an important next step in protecting the health of this valuable, at-risk population.” They added that the “results suggest a health crisis among this important sector of the emergency responding workforce, who play a critical role in the health and welfare of the general public.”

What can be done?

It must be acknowledged that physical conditioning isn’t a defensible job requirement, but it can’t be ignored. Although NFPA 1001: Standard for Fire Fighter Professional Qualifications identifies several tasks that require strength and dexterity, NFPA 1061: Standard for Public Safety Telecommunications Personnel Professional Qualifications doesn’t. Interestingly, the latter references the need for dispatchers to recognize the symptoms of stress in their coworkers. To that end, every agency should make sure that employee-assistance programs are available to all personnel and that communications center staff routinely are included in incident debriefings.

Telecommunicators should be treated as part of the team by providing them access to workout facilities. Invitations to dine with suppression personnel provide opportunities to eat healthier and to discuss ongoing issues. Wellness programs that focus on making measurable improvements rank high on effective tactics.

Although dispatchers never will be called upon to climb a 40-foot ladder in PPE as part of their regular duties, good health is critical to their well-being. In the end, their well-being is critical to the well-being of citizens and crewmembers. 

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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