It is essential for public safety personnel to take care of themselves—and each other—during times of crisis. Listen to this episode of Public Safety Now for a candid discussion of public safety emotional health and surviving difficult times together.
JW: Hi. Thanks for tuning into Public Safety Now on HxGN Radio. I’m your host, John Whitehead, vice president of sales for U.S. Public Safety at Hexagon’s Safety and Infrastructure division. We are absolutely dealing with a very unique situation here, as the coronavirus has come into our lives. I know we’ve been hearing about it now for several weeks, but as far as us in the U.S. and in the emergency services and how it’s affecting us, it’s really been here within just the last few days. I know a lot of us have the ability—we’ve got the emails from companies, that they’re telling us that they’re closing the office and they’re working remotely. And that’s great for a lot of companies. They have that luxury. But one of the areas that don’t have that luxury is public safety—dispatchers, officers, firefighters, EMS personnel. For them, the show must go on. They can’t just go home and do their job sitting on their couch or sitting at a desk at home. And unfortunately, that can take a toll. We all know that kids are at home now because schools are closed. Loved ones may have come down with the virus and fallen ill. And there’s a whole list of other reasons that can be stressors for the dispatch community and our emergency-service personnel. So, we brought a couple of people here with us: Jim Marshall and Tracy Eldridge. And we’ll let them introduce themselves here. But we’re going to talk today about emotional health during this challenging time and making sure that we are taking care of ourselves and that, again, we’re all going to get through this together.
So, Jim, welcome. You want to introduce yourself? Tell us a little bit about yourself.
JM: Sure. Thanks so much. I appreciate the invite, John. So I’m the director of 911 Training Institute, which is an offshoot of a clinical practice that I’ve managed for a lot of years. I’ve been a trauma therapist, relationship therapist, and kind of in the trenches since ‘87. Dialed it down to about zero at 2013 because I’d been going more of a full-time training 911 in resilience and management of calls involving mental illness, mental crises and suicide. Started training dispatchers about 15 years ago. The passion of the 911 Training Institute and our mission is to empower dispatchers as human beings so that while they’re serving and trying to help everybody else save their own lives, they protect theirs by strategically engaging evidence-based resilient skills, a resilient 911 mindset, and together building up peer-support programs, peer-support teams in their comm centers because they have to do well by getting each other’s backs as well as their own. This is what the 911 Training Institute is about. And I’ve just been embedded in the industry for a lot of years in this area and involved in helping set national policy so that we’re not just looking outward in terms of emergency response to the citizens in our field responders, but looking inward to protect the well-being of our agencies. So that’s it. That’s my chance, my privilege to help. And I’m grateful to be here.
JW: Awesome. Yeah, no. Thanks for joining us. I’m looking forward to this conversation.
And Tracy, why don’t you introduce yourself?
TE: Hi. My name is Tracy Eldridge, and I tend to joke that I’m a recovering PSAP director. I spent 20 years in the 911 center, and I left the public sector about three and a half years ago to join the RapidSOS team to work on help solve the location challenge for 911 callers, and it has grown into so much more. But one of the biggest passions that I have, not only delivering technology that is helping the callers, but also being a huge advocate for mental health in the 911 space. So, when I chose to leave the 911 center, it was because I was in a pretty heavy battle with PTSD myself. A lot of that came from, you know, past history of a whole bunch of stuff. And it was around three and a half years ago when I realised it was time for me to leave the center. And then I started putting a lot of tools in place to kind of pick myself up, dust myself off.
And one of the amazing things about RapidSOS in my journey there was the company, even though we were very small when we started, they were very receptive to understanding and helping me through my own PTSD journey. But also, they have been a huge supporter of my traveling across the country and not only sharing my story, but also allowing me to put resources in place to help telecommunicators in the mental-health space, because it’s so very important. And one of the sayings that I live by in my world today is my job and my passion allows me to save lives on both sides of the call.
JW: No. That’s incredible. You guys are both doing some good stuff for the public-safety community and dispatchers particularly. You know, it’s one of those things where 911 dispatch, as I said earlier, the show must go on. Dispatchers are coming into the comm center. They’re seeing the same information that we’re seeing on the news. They’re getting the same, you know, inundated with all of this information that’s being piled on us. As we all know, there’re some unknown variables. There are some stressors with that. There are some things just in our normal life that even us as laypeople are feeling the pressures and feeling a little bit of the stress, and then you’ve got to go in and add into the stress of being a dispatcher.
And one of the things that—I also wore that headset, just like you, Tracy. And one of the things that especially happened here is the fact that they’re dealing not only with calls from the community that’s worried about corona, that might be feeling ill, that needs assistance, but then they’re dealing with the rest of the items that they deal with on a day-in-and-day-out basis. And I think it’s important to talk a little bit about the emotional well-being of our dispatch staff and some of the resources that are out there and that’s available.
So, Jim, you said that you came from a clinical practice and that you’re training on this is the psychological well-being and that the 911 training is doing that. What are some tools out there as dispatchers? Maybe they get off at the end of the shift, and they’re feeling the additional burden of not only the job, but of just of life in general. What are some tools out there that they have available for them right now?
JM: Now, the first thing, if folks were to be so quick with a pen and paper that they’re taking notes here, would be my is no cookie-cutter solutions. So, what I won’t do, and that’s not what you’re asking me to do, is sometimes you throw out cute little strategies that just don’t cut it in the real world for 911 at the console.
So really, what it comes down to are a few different things. One, if your mindset as a 911 pro has been the classic emotional code, meaning what you believe you should do with what you feel, if the way you deal with emotion has been traditionally in those classic three words “just suck it up,” well, here’s the thing. Are 911 professionals, both our leaders and our front liners, they’re not going to freak out during this. They’re going to lean in. They’re going to push through. Their 911 brain is going to make sure of that. But what happens is if the emotional code is old school, “suck it up,” cumulatively that stress is going to wear them out more through the days and weeks and months, if this becomes months, which it very well may. So not to go in any big panic mode, but to go in the opposite direction.
If I can, I’d like to suggest that there’s not just management of the health risks associated with the virus, there’s also psychological management of how we’re each going through this. So, the first thing is the emergency-responder’s brain is programed beautifully to settle in and get in a zone during times like this. I’m not worried about our dispatchers freaking out in real time. It’s more what they’re going to pack inside themselves, inside their minds and their bodies, day after day if they keep sucking stuff up. So, number one is we’ve got to recognise we’re in a new era now, traveling through 24 percent of our dispatches with PTSD, many of which were almost kind of old school, “suck it up.” We’re in an era now where we have to recognise we need to use the skills and have a healthier mindset. We need peer support. We need people reaching out to each other. Get the job done. But on the shift, when you have a break, if you’re able to step out, get some breaths and talk to your peers. If things are affecting you, if you’re ‘p.o.’d’ at the apparently stupid calls—there are no truly stupid calls—but if you’re getting p.o.’d and annoyed at the little things, vent it to your peers. At the end of your shift, get some support before you leave the building and the parking lot. We need to take what we can train them in right now during this show—heart-focused breaths—to be able to truly reset their cardio and their brain to synchronise so they don’t drain completely and so they can have some quality of life with their families.
There’s a lot more to this. But just as a start, number one, adapt to healthy emotional code. That means I will get the help I need. I will not carry it all inside. Number two, you got to diffuse throughout the day with peer support and practicing some evidence-based skills.
JW: Yeah. I think what you’re saying there is some of the areas that I’ve read over the years, is that the stress doesn’t come on just because it’s a tough call or just because that one phone call, it’s a slow-building process. It’s insidious. It can sneak up on us. And even the best of us that are sitting behind that headset, all of a sudden, we find ourselves in that moment. Maybe we’re not recognizing the symptoms of stress. We’re not really focused on taking care of ourselves, like you’ve mentioned there. But next thing we know, we’re frustrated, and you get that phone call. If someone reaching out for help. But it may just seem silly. That person doesn’t realise that what you’ve just gone through or what you’re going through in your personal life, and that thing can definitely add up on us.
And, Tracy, you talked about the PTSD and kind of dealing with that within your own life. And I think that’s something that, Jim, you touched a little bit on it, but it’s something that used to be for the field emergency personnel. You know, I remember way back in the day, back in the late ‘80s, you know, when we started bringing in stress debriefings at the fire department. And as a volunteer, we were all kind of looking around going, what is this? It was kind of this foreign practice. You all sit around in a circle and you have conversations, and they bring in certain personnel based on that specific call type. But then when I got into the 911 center and I started working up there, even in the mid ‘90s, at least in my region, it wasn’t really practiced. And I see now that there’s a little bit of a change. Tracy, have you kind of seen some change over the years since you’ve been sitting there as far as realizing that the dispatchers are also in a stress-induced environment and may need some assistance?
TE: Absolutely, I’ve seen a change. I know that there are a handful of us, myself, Jim, included, and a bunch of other folks that are really trying to advocate for, you know, smashing the stigma of that it’s not okay to not be okay. It is okay to not be okay. It’s just not okay to stay there. And one of the biggest issues that I had was I have been training telecommunicators, just like Jim, probably close to 16, 17 years. I also teach part time for the Public Safety Group. And one of the classes that I teach and have been teaching for several years is the title of it is How to Save a Life—Yours. And it talks about all the really unhealthy habits that we have as telecommunicators. And in there, there was a section on PTSD, and I didn’t get too far into it. Just kind of the basics and etc. And it wasn’t too long before I realised I was the carpenter whose house wasn’t finished. I was a plumber with a leaky faucet. I was able to point out and share and help everybody else, but I was not in a good mental place to say, you know what, I’m drowning, and I need help.
And one of the things that Jim touched on is kind of like a buddy system, right? Like, there’s folks that you know that you can talk to in your center. Maybe you don’t feel comfortable opening up and sharing because just certain personalities, they’re not all warm and fuzzy, so they’re trying to do whatever this is on their own. But it doesn’t matter who you are. At least find that one buddy where you can kind of check in with each other. This is scary stuff. And when you have folks that are already—I joke that I have a compromised nervous system. And when my friends scare me, they think it’s funny. But to me, sometimes it’s overly stimulating. And when you have folks that are already dealing with PTSD, and a lot of times with PTSD comes depression and anxiety, and we spend a lot of time encouraging folks that are suffering from depression to get out of their houses, get out of their heads. And now we’re kind of pushing them back into their houses. So, I’m worried for folks that we’re not ready to reach out and seek help and seeing this kind of isolation as pushing them further and further back.
One of the things that we’ve said for years and years and years, there’s two things that I really want to start changing the messaging on. First, you know, forever in training, and I’m sure, John, you remember this, too, is when we were training folks, we’d tell them, you got to leave your problems at the door. And that message has to change. We got a lot of our folks that are coming in the door. They’re worried about their families. They’re worried about their children. They have to find childcare. And we can’t make them leave it at the door. They need to know that they have a safe place at work to open up.
And then the other part of the message is forever, and myself included, I was telling folks that when they’re struggling, you need to reach out, that there’s people out there that understand. You have to reach out, reach out, reach out. I want to change that messaging, too. When I was at the worst of my worst, to the place where I don’t even want to talk about the thoughts that I was having at the moment, I wasn’t capable of reaching out. There was absolutely no way I was reaching out. And we have to get really much better at reaching in and pulling somebody aside and looking them in the eye and having a conversation with them, not just a simple, “Hey, how are you doing? How are you feeling about this?” because telecommunicators, they’re not going to just open up for you.
JW: Yeah. I think you’ve touched on a really good topic there as far as… and I think it comes back to supervisors, comm directors, lead dispatchers and just others keeping an eye on each other, right? If you’ve got a seasoned veteran sitting in the dispatch center, or maybe even a new person who’s been there a few months, and you know what their norm is—pretty good disposition, they handle calls professionally—and all of a sudden you start seeing things happening that are outside of the norm, I think that it really is on us to assist others, because to your point, dispatchers are probably not going to be the ones to stand up and say, “Hey, I’m sorry. I’m having an issue. I need to seek help.” That’s probably one of the last people that’s going to do that. So, I think that it’s okay to reach out and say hello and just make sure that everybody’s doing okay and kind of maybe fly the flag, if you will.
I was looking online, and I saw a great article. Looks like it was written back in August of 2009 by Kim Rigden, and it was on stress management, stress and the 911 dispatcher. And, you know, one thing that, as we’re talking about this, I think it’s key is that we’re not talking about just general stress. That’s a part of everyone’s life. We’ve all got things that happen in our world. We’ve all got stressors that hit us. And actually, it’s necessary. I mean, it keeps us going. It keeps us motivated. It helps us with choices as we decide A or B, which way do I go? And the stressors in our life kind of work down. This is really the ones that go up and above those stressors. And when we get to the point where we’re taking a high volume of calls, plus we’re dealing with the stressors at home, plus we may have some callers that may seem silly—I’ll just say it that way—in our life—you know, I’ve got all these different calls on hold, and now you’re asking me, “Where can I go find ground beef if they’re out at the local grocery store?”—these are the types of stressors that really start mounting up. And it’s knowing when to deal with that is the key, right, Jim?
JM: Yeah, absolutely. And here’s the thing. If we look at the baseline experience of the dispatcher, when I’m training around the country, when we’re doing our resilience training with dispatch and it’s okay, I’ll ask the same question as a poll that just continues, where I keep gathering informal data every time I ask these questions of dispatchers. And remember, I distinguish for good customer service and to not be encouraging us to just go ballistic on our callers. There are apparently stupid calls. That doesn’t mean they truly are. But calls where it seems obvious or where people are just not thinking, well, we know that people are unable to access their best brain because they’re in a fight-or-flight response. It might seem like a silly thing that they’re calling about, but it’s their emergency. Having said that, when I asked dispatchers, what percentage of your calls, all your calls overall, you think are apparently stupid calls? And the percentage is generally from 60 to 80-plus percent, depending on how exhausted somebody is. So now what are we going to have? We’re going to have a higher volume of calls probably overall and a higher volume of calls perhaps that are apparently stupid calls, which means even our best dispatchers are going to be drained, perhaps more, and at more risk of, you know, slipping in and saying stuff they wish they hadn’t said and then it’s too late.
So, what this comes down to is we don’t—our dispatchers and their leaders don’t want us to rescue them as mental-health pros or people. So, you know, you have Tracy and I, it’s kind of like we’re the yin and the yang. She’s the dispatcher who’s been in the trenches. I’m the clinician who’s been in the trenches, too. But we have both sides of the house here talking and working on a national standard on this, coming up here in the next week or so.
But what the message really needs to be, we get it that you don’t want people rushing in to rescue you. You don’t need to be given simplistic advice. But we will say it’s not simplistic and it’s not dramatizing to say that whatever you’ve practiced as your way of emotional self-care, psychological support, seeking peer support, if it’s not outstanding, this is a call to commitment right now to do it better. That doesn’t have to be rocket science, and hopefully, by the end of the podcast, we can articulate a few steps there.
JW: Yeah, absolutely. Tracey, any thoughts on how stress builds up? One of the things that I read online, and I thought it was great was, you know, it said to picture a tall glass of water. And as you’re adding drops into that water, every day those drops are the little stressors that we encounter. Some are big, some are small. But they never really fill that glass up. But then if you start working in an environment like we’re in today or you start dealing with some of the stressors as a dispatcher, those droplets start banging into that glass pretty quickly. And it’s when that glass overflows, and whenever that stress kind of kind of spills out, if you will, and overflows, that’s really whenever the physical and mental ailments can start happening, the reaction to that stress and really where it starts going. And I thought that gave a good visualiser of kind of, you know, the feeling. And I remember sitting at the desk, having large call volumes, having in our area, let’s say a tornado would come through, I mean, you’re dealing with some calls, they’re just trying to figure out what’s up anymore. Then you’ve got other calls where people are trapped and they need your assistance… and dealing with all those things. I picture those now after reading that is just big drops that keep going to that glass and keep filling up that glass and then hopefully it doesn’t spill over.
TE: Yeah, absolutely. And just to share with you, I spoke at the Georgia GECC conference last week, and I received an email. And in the email, this is what the telecommunicator said, “I was so moved by your testimony and surprised at how much I did not know about PTSD.” And I think that’s really important because a lot of the stuff that telecommunications are going through, they just assume that they’re tired. They’ve been working long hours. You know, everybody else sucks. It has nothing to do with that. And they’re not realizing, they’re not recognizing that even somebody just chewing, you want to rip their face off, or blaming others for all of these things or lashing out, and self-doubting and self-loathing, and all of these things start adding up. And then you start with physical responses. So now their heart rate is starting to go up and their respiratory rate is going up, and they’re not even noticing that these things are happening. And, you know, PTSD isn’t the flick of a switch. It’s not like, oh, I had a bad call and now I have PTSD. The majority of the time, it truly is like a buildup of just history and history and risk factors and all of these things compiled together.
But what I also notice is, is when it grabs a hold of somebody, then everything else intensifies. So now we’re in this place where, you know, folks who may have had some depression and some anxiety, now they’re starting to really worry. And now they have no choice but to leave their home and go into work when they, too, may be struggling with being scared or being worried that this is going to affect them. Or, you know, my husband’s at home. He has M.S. and his immune system is compromised. And I’m just thinking to myself, if I was doing my volunteer work and working shifts on the ambulance, now I’m nervous that I’m going to bring this home, or even just being around other people. So, we definitely have an added layer here. And we for sure need to keep an eye on each other.
And furthermore, in the first part when I had mentioned that buddy system, one of the things that we often forget to do, as front line telecommunicators and supervisors, is to work back up the chain as well. You know, those directors and those managers, well, they have so much going on as well. They’re changing policies. They’re implementing things that—they’re attending meetings, they’re working long hours, they’re trying to make sure they’re doing the right thing, and if I do this, then that, and making these decisions, and that, in and of itself, is mentally exhausting and emotional for them as well. So, if you’re a front-line folk, reach back up and make sure that those folks are doing okay, too. I think that’s really important.
JM: Yeah, for sure.
JW: That’s a good point. It’s just not those that are around us. I mean, it’s keeping an eye on everyone, especially during troubling times, whenever stressors are up all over.
You know, you talked a little bit about some of the, I’ll say the signals, and I remember being in the dispatch center and it’s like, yep, I had to work an 18-hour shift and I’m tired, or I had to deal with one of those calls tonight, so I was probably aggravated whenever I got home. The kids always had some project I had to work on. And those types of thoughts would keep coming through. We’ve talked about some of the mental areas to keep an eye out, some of the emotional areas and some of the behaviors there. But it’s also physical, too. I mean, it could be everything from headaches and different pains and aches and things that are occurring. Those are all signs, I’m assuming, that people should be on the lookout for, right?
TE: Yeah. And I just want to throw in one of my physical symptoms that I had no idea until, you know, I’ve gosh, I’ve been in therapy for a really long time for this, in treatment, and did different things, but one of the things that was one of my signs and symptoms—well, two of them, actually—was severe dry mouth and excessive yawning. And maybe Jim can speak a little bit more to those two. From my understanding, the excessive dry mouth has a lot to do with the fight-or-flight response, where our body is kind of shutting down the systems that it doesn’t really need in a place of high stress. And then I’m not sure what the yawning thing is, but when I’m extremely high stress, I yawn and it’s almost like I can’t catch a full breath. And then that gets to the point where I’m a little panicky, too. So, Jim, I’m not sure if you’re aware of those things, but there’s symptoms that are expected and then ones that are totally out of the norm.
JE: Yeah. So, if we were to break these down, and I think this is a good place that we’re traveling in this because if I can suggest we can look a little bit more at the symptoms, and then I’m even going to back this up a little bit before we roll into that fully. But let’s just say that, you know, the baseline level of hypervigilance that dispatchers and their directors are living with—so, hypervigilance being always looking out for the next thing that’s coming behind or to the side of you and really being completely alert, super alert, but it’s draining to be hyper vigilant all the time—now we have increased vigilance related to the virus. There are concerns about contamination for ourselves or for loved ones. There’s worrying about them. And there’s financial impacts, there’re changes in work schedule, there’s emergency-management policy implementation, there’s all this stuff that’s going to increase the feeling that you need to be even more vigilant, and it’s going to be natural to be more hyper vigilant. So, you know, everyone is going to exhibit signs that are out of the normal. And that doesn’t mean necessarily that there’s something severely wrong, and definitely, Tracy’s not saying that. I mean, there are signs, for sure, to look for when we’re looking at real PTSD. But let’s just look at this more as along a continuum. And so, because, there’s, you know, yeah, there’s post-traumatic stress disorder, which is purely the when you have the flashbacks, the nightmares, the different ways that you get triggered, the need to avoid a lot of places and then hypervigilance startle reflex. But then there’s compassion fatigue. And compassion fatigue is when you’re—it’s a combination of two things. If you imagine an umbrella with two handles. On the left side are the traumatic impacts, some of which I’ve just described. So that’s the trauma stuff. It may not be full-blown PTSD. It doesn’t meet the full criteria. But there’s the trauma aspects of compassion fatigue.
Then the second one, though, is what we’ve classically called burnout. And one good way to put that is when your give a damn is busted, the country song, and your give a damn is busted. So, it’s like there there’s the fatigue, speaking to what Tracy said. You know, there’s fatigue, there is irritability, there’s changes in attitude, etc. But if we break all this down, and there’s also the physiological stuff, too, chronic stress responses where different systems of the body are starting to tucker out and so you end up with sickness in a variety of different ways. And without going into all of that—does that make sense so far? I want to try to get a simple way to look for signs here, but does that make sense so far?
JW: Yeah. No, I think it absolutely makes sense. Yep, exactly.
JM: Okay. One of the reasons, we should say here, one of the reasons I talk so fast is that if you can imagine, training dispatchers all the time, if you don’t try to talk almost as fast as they think, they get very bored. Right, Tracy? Right, John?
TE: And I’m from Massachusetts, so I talk fast anyway.
JW: There was a part of me, Jim, that I was going to say, “I’m sorry, Jim. I wasn’t listening. What’d you say?” I figured it was not the time. Go on.
JM: Yeah. I was just out in Massachusetts, too, Tracy, as you know. I mean, we were at the same conference one of those days.
And anyhow, so if we back it up, we need to be able to make this accessible. Let’s put some handles on this that people can think about. Think about it this way. TEB (as in boy) B (as in boy), or, you know, use the classic abbreviations. But thought, emotion, body, and behavior. The first thing we’re looking for is, everybody’s going to have additional struggles right now, psychologically, emotionally, to some extent. Not everybody’s the same. And so, you know, we don’t have to … again… we don’t have to freak about changes. But when we have thinking that’s become different, much more negative, darker, even more cynical than the classic dispatcher, this isn’t right. Then we know we’ve got something to worry about. And so the thinking is, when it gets dark, it’s more like that.
Emotion, when we’re having a harder time managing our emotional distress, when we realise we’re stuffing a lot and there’s a lot of crud inside, or it’s leaking out; we just feel more negative, more antagonistic, more critical, we’re abrupt, more reactive—we don’t have to say whether this is related to compassion fatigue or PTSD. We don’t have to diagnose. But we just recognise those differences in ourselves.
And in terms of the body, what’s going on? Am I finding myself not eating near as much or eating way more? Am I eating stuff that’s crappier instead of stuff that’s healthier? In other words, am I in a tilt right now? So, am I kind of losing my balance, in that regard? Another part of the body—TEB, the first B—is sleep. So, when the dispatchers on the whole in the United States of America, per my informal study of thousands of them, it’s about four to six hours. Well, if it’s even crappier than that, not that you shouldn’t be getting more, let’s not brag about it. As Michelle Lilly would say, we’ve got to recognise that’s a hard science. So, check each one of these.
The second B is behavior. If I’m acting more impulsively, if I’m shutting down more, avoiding people more, if I’m taking on way too much work, like, crazy too much. So, along with illnesses for body, back to that.
So, changes in thinking, emotion, body, and behavior—TEBB—if we’ll remember that, and then that can lead to wherever we go with this discussion in terms of nailing down some steps that people can take.
TE: And I just want to piggyback on that. You know, in general, so I mentioned I’m from Massachusetts, and there’s a lot of times we’ll have these things called blizzards, and everybody hunkers down for three or four days. And when you walk into the 911 center, you’re packed and loaded and ready to end up staying there for quite some time. But what’s one of the first things that folks do? They bring in all of this junk food. For them, it’s a coping mechanism. So, there’s memes out there, joking around about, I ate all my quarantine snacks already. But it really is—so we have folks that are scrambling and just buying out anything and everything they can in the stores. Now they have stuff in the house. They’re bored. They’re nervous. Whatever it is. Their schedules are shifting, so they’re eating at the times of day that they normally wouldn’t eat. And it’s just a natural behavior to go, you know what, I’m eating healthy for the last month. But now all bets are off. We can’t control this. But you really can. So, when you can, you should be controlling the things that you can control. And that’s what goes in your mouth, that’s how often you move.
Lots of folks are—even in the 911 space, so we’re seeing folks that are in administrative positions, whether it’s quality assurance, physicians, physicians, where they can be removed from the center and they’re actually working from home, and that can be a challenge, too. You know, I know that when I went from being in the center to working at home, now you have this isolation that you didn’t have before. Now you have the kitchen that’s literally steps away. If you have a separate office that is separated from the rest of the house, it’s very easy to just stay in there for three days at a time and not come out and see your family.
So, you know, there’s not just these mental aspects. It’s shifting their whole world and how they’re living their life right now. So, folks have to put in the work. We can’t just go about our business. They have to thoughtfully think of the things that they can put in place to not become sedentary, to not stuff their feelings with all this horrible food. And then furthermore, you know, alcohol and other stuff working from home, yeah, maybe I’ll have a beer at lunchtime, that leads to one to two to three to four to five. You know, there’s a lot going on here, for sure.
JW: Well, it comes back to, and I think this is kind of where we’re going next, ways to keep yourself healthy and ways to keep yourself healthy both physically and mentally. And, you know, we’ve mentioned sensible eating. Hopefully, we didn’t lose a lot of listeners just by talking about that. But sensible eating is definitely one area.
You know, Jim, you did talk a little bit about, even if you’re at the dispatch center, we had the luxury of having enough staff when we would get off one of those calls, you get up, you go outside, you walk around the parking lot. I know a lot of dispatch centers now have put in workout facilities within their comm center. It’s just getting away for a little bit, getting that—I’m going to say—rest and relaxation, but it’s really just taking that couple minutes just for yourself and making sure that—I’m going to call it a mini reset. But that would be one way. Are there any others?
JM: Well, you used the term reset, and I’ll just back up on it. You know, we may have a lot of dispatchers who are listening right now who are going to say, look, when we get it handed to us, we don’t even have a couple of minutes throughout the whole day. And you guys know that. You’ve lived it. So, what I’m trying to teach dispatchers to do in our course is to reset during the calls. It begs the question, what are we resetting? If you think about it, we’ve been taught that a regular heart rate is not good. But the fact is all of our heart rates are irregular in that we change the beats per minute. The heart rate changes.
So what I’m getting at is that what we’re really needing to do, in order to not drain all your energy as a 911 pro, whether you’re a leader or a front liner or supervisor, in order not drain it, you have to be able to reset, what I call, your psycho phys. You think about ‘psycho phys’, psycho physiology, seven syllables. What it means is that the stuff that’s coming at you psychologically impacts you physiologically in every system, all the tissue of your body. So, we can reset that very, very quickly by using an evidence-based skill called heart-focused breathing. What that means is you want to take your heart-rhythm patterns that are chaotic, meaning that the beats per minute has no discernible pattern. It’s chaotic. It’s all over the place. When you have that chaotic heart-rhythm pattern, you’re activating the old fight-or-flight response, the cortisol response. You’re getting what’s called a neural hijack. So, you’re not using your cortex, cortex in balance with limbic system and lizard brain. You’re just basically offline and it’s draining you, offline in the cortex and you’re getting drained. I know this is a deep dive on science really quickly, but I want to make sure that what I’m giving is real substance.
And so what we can do, very quickly, is what scientists have found is if you change the heart-rhythm patterns, so you have what’s called a smoother or a coherent heart pattern, it’ll send the messages to the executive control center of your brain instead of the freak-out center. And that then changes how your whole body and mind work together. So, check it out. You don’t drain your battery. And right now is a time when people’s batteries are going to be drained down far more every day because of all the uncertainty and the increased lack of control. So, what we want to do is reset, even during hot calls, you can take deep breaths while they’re talking, when you’re entering into CADS. I call it ‘CAD breathing’.
But outside of the calls, in between the calls, and at bedtime, we can learn the heart-focused breathing. So, it’s basically imagining your breathing in and out of your heart area. Okay, so, John and Tracy and your team there, let’s just do it for, like, 15 seconds. I’ll cheat, maybe 20 seconds. So this is not a kumbaya moment, by the way. We’ve had three of our divisions of our armed forces trained in doing this. Special units. This change is hardcore, what’s going on in our brain and body.
Step one, you just imagine you’re breathing in and out of your heart area to reduce the distress. And then step two, you just begin taking deep, relaxed breaths, into the heart area and out. About five seconds in and five seconds out. So, our listeners can do the same thing. We’ve taught a lot of different kinds of breathing over the years. I’ve chosen to morph to this because it’s solid evidence based.
So what happens is if we do that reset throughout the day, we’re going have more energy when we get done, we’ll make less mistakes, we’ll feel more like we have a real brain and we’re not losing it, and we’ll have more to bring back to our families. So that’s one step.
JW: Yeah. I like that, Jim. And Tracy, I’m looking at this through the eyes of a dispatcher because there were shifts where we would start off right away and go, go, go. And there wasn’t time to go stretch and get up and take that break and do that. And the next thing you know, you blink, and three, four, five, six hours have gone by. I could see this being instrumental as I’m actually working, because some of what we do during those calls is a little muscle memory, right? I know I’m going to ask for the address, and I’m going to type that in. I know you have time to actually do what Jim’s talking about, even during those calls. And it sounds like more of a situation of calming yourself down, getting back into a normal rhythm to where you’re able to continue on. And those little mini resets, if I could call them, over the course of a shift, I bet they could come in handy.
TE: Absolutely. And one of the other things, too, is folks have to get better at, when they do have the opportunity, to get up and walk out of the center. A lot of folks don’t. They just don’t. And I’ve seen this a thousand times if I saw it once, where if it’s busy or they don’t want to feel like they’re abandoning their coworkers in a moment that they actually need to take that time. And I wish the folks in the seat could understand if you take that five minutes, 10 minutes, to disconnect yourself, go back in there, you’re going to be much more beneficial to your team than if you just sit there and wait it out, wait it out and let everything kind of build up. So, if they have the opportunity, just take that five minutes and just get some fresh air, feel the sun on your face. This isn’t a blizzard. You can actually go outside and enjoy the sun if it’s there, right?
JW: Yep. I agree. And this has been a great conversation here. The one area that I will add in, and I know we talked a little bit about it earlier, but I really think it’s important as dispatchers that we keep our support staff close. I know that it’s easy to come home and shut off our colleagues and our friends and our family because they just don’t get it or they’re not seeing or hearing what I’m dealing with. But I think having that support staff around is extremely instrumental in all of us and keeping us all healthy, especially whenever you’re coming into a situation like we’re in today, when you’re going to go home and your family’s now are dealing with the stressors that they’re dealing with, whether that’s the kids have been home all day, or oh, my gosh, it’s doom and gloom on the news, or whatever else is going on in their life, keeping tight, I think, with our loved ones is going to be a huge area that we need to focus on.
TE: John, I just want to jump in on that. You just prompted something that I definitely wanted to touch on. A lot of times, telecommunicators, the person they’re going home to is also somebody in public safety. So many folks have two family members that are working in public safety. And then we’re going to throw this added component on that suddenly everybody wants to do this homeschooling thing, and I get it. Believe me. I totally get it. These kids are going to be out of school for a long time. But I think what’s happening is they’re going into panic mode. We got to get this done. I don’t even know how to do this new math that these kids are doing these days. So why not take a deep breath and treat the next couple of days as snow days, where they would be watching Netflix and chilling for a little while, but start to incorporate these things in a little bit slower than trying to just absorb this life change all at one time.
JM: Yeah. That’s really good. And if I can add to that, John, Tracy, that’s so good because dispatchers, the longer you do the job, the more perfectionistic most dispatchers get because there’s always that sense of life and death in any given moment. And so then it’s like, well, now I have to be the perfect parent, and I feel like I’m falling short because of my job demands. And so now I’m going to relate to my kids during this coronavirus like A-plus as parent as well. I think that’s a tremendous point, Tracy.
The other thing is, in keeping with this idea of saying goodbye to the old “suck it up” emotional code is you think about dispatchers are dealing with callers even they’re trying to take care emotionally of their field responders. They’re trying to be the voice that’s strong for the responders, as we know. But for the public as well and for their own children, they’re trying to be the voice that’s strong. We got this. We got this. Let’s not freak out. And it can even get annoying for a lot of responders, too. You almost want to say to people, “Come on. Pull it together, will you?” I mean, we’re not going to be any better off if we freak. Having said that, the reality is that those same dispatchers, like psychology people like myself, also have things to fear in the middle of this. And my bottom line is, I think this is a season in which to practice some transparency with those you trust, and you know accept you. Practice some transparency about the emotions that are there when they’re there. If you’re scared, because it’s normal to be fearful in some of these situations about illness and about financial stuff, we don’t have to freak, but we can acknowledge to those we feel safe with that, “You know, I’m dealing with a little fear here, too.” Well, good. Then have the discussions and discharge the energy of that so you can refuel.
JW: No, that’s great information.
So, as we wrap up here, in the last few minutes, I want to give you both some time. If someone is listening to this and they’re either seeing or living this, experiencing this, what are some areas that they could go and get more information on this topic? Do you guys have anything that they can go and look at? Tracy?
TE: So, I’ll just throw out there, first of all, there’s safety in numbers. There are a lot of support groups that are on Facebook that telecommunicators can find peace with and know that there are telecommunicators or public-safety folks that are going through the same thing, and they can get advice that way. I’m more than happy to—I’m not a clinician. I am not certified in any of this. But I do have a lot of folks that I connect with on social media or via email that I’d be happy to have a conversation with, because sometimes you just might need somebody to give you that verbal smack in the face, to say the sky is not falling. It’s good. We’re good. We’re working together for this. And I know that I see somebody on a regular basis. I do EMDR for my PTSD, and I’m pretty confident that if I was starting to spiral, I could shoot her a message and say, “I’m spiraling. What options do you have in place?” And who knows? Maybe she’s able to jump on a phone call or a Skype call or a Zoom call or something. But if you don’t ask for the help, it’s just not going to be there. It’s just not going to pop up in front of you. So, you have to consciously know that there’s tools and resources out there. And then on the flip side, keep an eye out for the people that are close to you, especially those that you know could be struggling. You know there’s folks out there that you know they’re struggling anyway, prior to all this. We need to really reach in and kind of give those folks a hand, too, and make sure they’re doing okay.
JW: Great advice. Jim, anything from you?
JM: Yeah. I would say, you know, we’ve tried to build a lot of resources on the website for the 911 Training Institute. If you go to 911training.net, you can go to Resources, and just scroll down through, because we address PTSD, we address compassion fatigue, we talk about EMDR and evidence-based treatment. There’s a lot more information there that’ll be helpful for folks. I think that’s a good starting place. And notice that my email is there. So, when people are having a hard time finding a clinician or they have an EAP they don’t think is helpful and they’re not sure where to turn, they can always email me. You’ll see my email there, and I welcome those. Don’t get overwhelmed. We’re able to manage that support.
And the other thing is, I think, to just be sure that they’re choosing good information sources about the virus. I think a go-to place is CDC, so going to the source for the coronavirus on the website for CDC.gov and read objective information. I think the combination of the supports and resources that we can offer on the website and then getting good information about the virus itself, so we stay balanced is a good start.
TE: And then to add to that too, Jim, number one, turn the news off. Number two, stop scrolling Facebook. Go hug your kids, your spouse, your pets, whatever it is, because the more you absorb this stuff, the worse it’s getting for folks.
JW: Tracy, we were right on the same thing. I was getting ready to say the exact same thing, that there are better resources out there than social media and your favorite news channel that is just giving you the same thing over and over, 24/7. And I think we’ve given them some good areas, especially going to that CDC website. Or just reaching out and just looking for the information that’s out there.
Guys, it has been awesome to talk to you. I hope we can do this again and be able to talk a little bit more maybe about some different techniques and some different areas. Hopefully, everyone listening found this as valuable as I did.
A big thank you to both Tracy Eldridge from RapidSOS and Jim Marshall, the director of the 911 Training Institute. To hear additional episodes or learn more, visit us at hxgnspotlight.com. And thanks for tuning in.