Updated: September 24th, 2021
As a 911 dispatcher, I often feel like it’s the isolated profession of first responders.
After all, we are the only position classified by the government as an “office and administrative support occupation” (clerks, tellers, customer service representatives, etc), rather than a “protective service occupation” like the rest of those we work alongside. Some of our own don’t even view us as first responders because we aren’t responding to the scene. Imagine dealing with the exact same stressful situation but being left out of debriefs, placed in a room where you may be alone and the only connection you have to the others who responded to the scene are the radio conversations about arrival times and requests for additional aid. In The Resilient 911 Professional, authors Jim Marshall and Tracey Laorenza list nine stressors unique to 911: no warning before potentially traumatic calls; lack of closure; psychologically on scene but physically unable to reach it; send their own into harm’s way; limited sensory engagement with those on scene; high call volume and frequency; crazy-tasking demand; little to no downtime to de-stress; lack of appreciation and professional respect.
I would agree that every 911 dispatcher deals with at least one of these every shift and often has repeated exposure to them.
When looking at these stressors, it’s clear that they will always exist, there is never going to be a way to eliminate every single one, if any, permanently. Just as stress is part of life, additional exposure to stress is part of being a first responder. So, how can dispatchers deal with the stressors in a healthy, proactive way?
The short answer is yoga.
Knowing how much it has helped me, personally, it’s frustrating that a large majority of the population are left out because of misconceptions. It has been scientifically proven that yoga has many health benefits, both physical and psychological. At least if you consider running in the same respect, a fitness modality known to have health benefits, most people at least try it to find out it’s not for them, yet we don’t approach yoga in the same way. After practicing in-studio for several years, I wanted to find a way to break down barriers and bring yoga to a population, who I knew from personal experience, could benefit from it. I set out to see if anyone was doing it and located the non-profit organization, Yogashield Yoga For First Responders (YFFR). They took all of that scientific data and developed a protocol stripped of the western approach to make yoga more accessible and welcoming to hesitant public safety professionals.
Continuing the earlier question: how can dispatchers handle the stressors in a healthy, proactive way by utilizing yoga?
Tactical breathwork is the first aspect of the protocol I would like to address.
911 callers can be frantic because they are oftentimes experiencing the worst day of their lives. As call takers, we still have to be able to obtain pertinent information from these callers. Without even realizing they are doing yoga, they may instruct the caller to take a deep breath. While I was taught during training to become a 911 dispatcher to repeat calming statements to frantic callers, it seems breathwork could be a more effective tool for calming them. I imagine there are seasoned call takers who use the “take a deep breath” instruction for that reason. There may also be a situation where the dispatcher takes a deep breath for themselves before answering a call or keying up on the radio. I remember when I first started and every time 911 rang, my heart began racing because I didn’t know what was going to be on the other end. Somewhere along the way I realized if I took a deep breath, it helped. After attending YFFR instructor school and learning about tactical breathwork, I now know the science behind why taking a deep breath will reverse the stress response. When you inhale through the nose, into the belly (figuratively speaking - to involve the diaphragm) and extend the exhale through the nose, you are essentially hitting the calm button. Jill Miller describes breath training as a form of mental training in The Roll Model. She states “your biology provides you this free tool to help you face seemingly insurmountable emotional and physical stresses”. She also recognized that “deep breathing is always at your disposal”, so it truly could be utilized by dispatchers both for themselves and for callers.
The next portion is physical drills, which may not seem relevant to dispatchers.
Sure, our bodies aren’t challenged in the same ways as police officers and firefighters as we don’t carry added weight from gear. There also isn’t a fitness level requirement to get hired or be successful in this career. However, sitting in a chair or standing for 12 hours straight, sometimes more, without the ability to move far because you are often tethered to the desks, can be just as taxing on the body. It’s also likely that after extended periods of time, this lack of movement will lead to adverse health effects. The tailored physical drills can be a way to combat this issue. One of the many great things about YFFR is it’s adaptability. It emphasizes that you don’t have to be on a yoga mat, in a studio, or able to dedicate an hour or more to get the benefits of the practice. There are physical drills that can be done while standing or seated at a desk, in a matter of minutes, no matter what uniform you are wearing.
While the busy-ness and unpredictability of a 911 center may not allow time for the third aspect of YFFR, neurological reset, it is a great tool that could be utilized during a break or following a shift.
As first responders, we want to change and save lives. This can get in the way of the reality that “we have no control over outcomes”, as Captain Dan Willis states in Bulletproof Spirit. He continues that “it is the conscious effort to do good and to make a difference in the present moment that is essential”. A neurological reset is an opportunity to remind ourselves of this. It only takes a few minutes and will give the body and mind a chance to recover from any stress in an effective way, processing it rather than just coping with it.
The last portion, cognitive declarations (CDs), is likely the most important in handling the nine stressors unique to 911 and, similar to tactical breathwork, can be used any time, any place.
They are short statements said to yourself or out loud as a way of using the mind to change the body’s natural response to stress (“I am safe”, “I release what I don’t need”, “I got this”, etc). They could be used during neurological reset to, as previously mentioned, remind ourselves we have no control over outcomes. Much of being a first responder is mental, for 911 dispatchers it’s a majority of the job, yet there is little to no training for being mentally resilient in this line of work. Using CDs has been shown to create new neural pathways, turning what the body considers to be distress into eustress. I have gotten caught in the cycle of overthinking and questioning my ability or wondering if I could have done more when something goes awry and I know, in this profession, I am not the only one who does it. I now have this tool of CDs to stop myself in that cycle and reframe my mindset so that those thoughts don’t wear me down over time.
I consider myself lucky to have had the opportunity to attend the instructor school so that I have more resources to continue a successful career and keep my health along the way.
Knowing that many leave the profession because of the unique stressors, I can’t help but wonder if they had YFFR, if they would have stayed. I also think about those with PTS(d) from the job and that maybe their suffering could have been lessened or prevented if only they had been given tools at the start of their career. It’s reassuring to know there is an organization looking out for us and working to get the protocol into academies. YFFR is an invaluable tool that I look forward to seeing implemented in all communication centers and public safety departments so that we can begin to see a change for the better in the currently gut wrenching statistics surrounding first responders.