In Service Of Those Who Serve

Danissa Alston

Guest Writer

Busy radio traffic, high call volume, low staffing, perpetual sleep deprivation … sound familiar? These are some of the common descriptors of an Emergency Dispatcher’s professional life. As if those aren’t enough to erode one’s mental health, they compound the stressors of everyday life such as caregiving, finances, relationships, etc. As the emergency communications industry shifts to emphasize the wellness of Emergency Dispatchers, PSAPs are responding variably around the country and worldwide. At the Montgomery County, Maryland (USA), Emergency Communications Center (ECC), the response was to incorporate an on-site, staff social worker.

Years before this role’s inception, executive management within the Montgomery County Emergency Communications Division identified a concerning trend: The needs of its Emergency Dispatchers were being overlooked and going unmet. Despite being a critical link in the chain of emergency response, the department’s attempts to support the well-being of its personnel was falling short of serving those first on the front lines. As scene responders gained more attention and resources, Emergency Dispatchers continued to be left behind. Emergency Dispatchers were struggling with compassion fatigue and burnt out, and an intervention was sorely needed.

In the fall of 2020, the call went out. The Montgomery County Police Department was seeking to hire a clinically licensed staff social worker, explicitly for its Emergency Communications Center. In March 2021, the vision of an on-site staff social worker finally actualized. I came on board and was charged with several tasks: providing culturally competent crisis intervention and management; offering short-term interim counseling; referring staff to external clinical resources; assisting with the creation of a dispatch-specific peer support team; and serving as the peer support team’s Clinical Director.

To successfully meet the expectations of the role, I became immersed into the world of emergency communications. I learned not only the logistical components of how a PSAP operates, but I also learned the distinctive culture of Emergency Dispatchers. Books and studies were read, numerous sit-alongs were conducted, questionnaires were designed and disseminated, recordings were reviewed, and a routine was devised.

Understanding that staff may not be fully aware of the mental health profession, I offered education about confidentiality and what therapy is, isn’t, and could be. I advocated for wellness of staff, not just as Emergency Dispatchers, but as the whole people they are. Consequently, some people slowly began to entrust me with their deepest vulnerabilities, finding catharsis in the process.

There was still initial resistance and skepticism. There were cynics and critics. But, not unlike any other new client, a relationship had to be built. The role was defined and refined, to dispel confusion of the staff. Two years later, there has been general acceptance of the position, while some apprehension persists for a percentage of staff. The reluctance could be due to differences in personality, identity, or general mistrust of mental health professionals. However, the future looks promising for the continued success of the role of a mental health professional in emergency communication centers.