Taking Care Of Our Own

Holly Williams


I first knew we had a problem with how we treated our team members and their mental health late in the fall of 2019. While working a day with the opposite rotation, we had a tough call involving a child not breathing with a hysterical father refusing to stop (he was driving) and get CPR started. One of the most seasoned emergency dispatchers in our center took that call and tried to get help there as fast as possible.

When the call was over, the emergency dispatcher went straight back to work answering the next call. No one in the center realized the emergency dispatcher was struggling with the call, and since there was a child involved, she was more upset than some because she had been struggling with starting her own family and it just hit her differently. The emergency dispatcher was working an odd shift to help with staffing, so she left later than the rest of her teammates. The next day, another team member told me that she spent an hour crying in her car alone in the parking lot until her husband finally picked her up because she couldn’t stop the tears long enough to drive home.

After hearing about this, I went to my boss at the time and petitioned for her to get involved and have a debriefing called to help this emergency dispatcher. The fire and EMS crew and the law enforcement responders were all in to help make this debriefing possible. When I approached the emergency dispatcher about it, immediately she replied with “I’m not going to that.” So as a supervisor, I asked my boss if I could go with her so she would get the help that she desperately needed, and I was told I could, but it would be on my own time, on a Friday that I was off.    

With the mental health of our emergency dispatchers being important, I came in on my day off and took that seasoned emergency dispatcher to her first debriefing. She had a safe space to get out everything she was feeling from that day. She heard from the fire and EMS and law enforcement teams that responded on that call. They provided encouragement and boosted her up about the amazing job she does every day. We all let out some tears, but we discussed it and how we could work better with each other during calls like this.

The police chief said he would do a better job of checking in with emergency dispatch during a tough call to make sure we knew how much we were appreciated and how well we did our job with the call. Small things like this have a big impact since we as emergency dispatchers can’t see the scene or know what happened most of the time. We need closure too from what we hear.   

After this incident, I focused on taking care of my team, making sure they know that they can call me without a doubt 24 hours a day when it comes to their mental health needs. As their leader, we are only strong as a team when we are all happy, healthy, and valued.

Recently, I conducted a survey about stress and morale in the emergency communication center that reached over 40 states in the U.S. as well as Canada. The data from across the continent was interesting, showing that most centers deal with stress and morale in some way daily. Stress is a feeling of emotional or physical tension and can come from any event or thought that makes you feel frustrated, angry, or nervous. Stress is your body’s reaction to a challenge or demand.

What are some causes of stress in the communication center? Call volume, older equipment, staffing, low-frequency/high-intensity calls, and personalities of our co-workers are some of the main causes of stress. How can we as an industry better handle stress for our people? Hire more people as the call volume increases and help with the workload on our staff, keep updating equipment so that it is not outdated, and show up for assigned shifts so that others have their time off too.

One of the questions on the survey was “What does your center do after a large incident?” The response to that question showed that 68% of our emergency dispatchers must keep working while 25% are allowed a short break and then must return. In the same survey, 84% stated they have felt stress directly related to the job.

Morale in our centers also seems to be an issue that relates to the stress our emergency dispatchers are feeling daily. Toxicity in the workplace breeds more toxicity, and it can directly affect the morale of a center. In the same survey, 79% of respondents rated their center a 3 or lower for morale out of 5, with 47% rating it a 2 or lower. Survey respondents said 58% of team members do not feel valued at work for what they contribute to the shift each day.

How do we change this for the better and make work a place where our people want to be? Out of the total number of survey respondents, 69% said bimonthly staff meetings between line level and management would make them feel like their voices were being heard. Other suggestions were to increase staff participation in national or state conferences, have more training options, include a tier system for advancement, and provide better pay. 

As a leader, we have several things that do not cost money but can make your team feel valued. For starters, our center made a change and simply started referring to our shifts as “teams.” This has helped our people feel like they are part of the team when at work. According to the survey, 41% said their supervisor does not make time to know their team members and 37% said their supervisors do not coach them to be a better emergency dispatcher or to reach their goals.

I have found that I am a better leader for my team when I work with them to simply understand their goals in this industry so that I can guide them to those goals. I also believe in getting to know each of my team members and the challenges they face outside of work, like their home life and family. This makes me personable to them and allows us to work with each other’s strengths and weaknesses to be a high performing team.

Taking care of our own must be a priority to all leaders in the 911 industry. Stress and morale affect us all differently, and if we can work to alleviate just some of the stress and boost the morale, our centers function better while allowing our emergency dispatchers to feel valued for what they contribute to public safety each day. 

In closing, one of the best pieces of advice I received when I started into leadership and became a supervisor of a team of 911 professionals was from a wise captain I worked with. He said to me, “At the end of the day, if you do nothing else, make sure to always take care of your people, for they will take care of you.” That has stuck with me since I became a leader and a supervisor. It is my mission every day I come to work. I take care of them by fixing breakfast for them, having monthly one-on-ones to check in, and simply being present with my team. They rise above and reach for my expectations to provide the best service possible to every caller and responder we encounter. This is simple, yet one of the hardest tasks for leaders to do. I challenge each of you to show up and take care of one another for we are 911!

Holly Williams is a Communications Supervisor for Orange County Emergency Communications (Virginia)