Wednesday, August 1, 2012
I was on a social network site for 911 professionals the other day and came across a post from an unhappy dispatcher. He was just venting to the only audience that could possibly understand what he was going through. It was very apparent that he had one of those days—you know the ones I’m referring to. The days when you’re so close to either throwing your headset across the room or wrapping the phone cord around your neck (only because you have no access to the idiot on the other end of the phone) until the sweet release of silence washes over you.
Trust me—over the last 20 years of working in the public safety industry I’ve had my share of those kinds of days. I’ve asked myself countless times why I chose this line of work. The demanding public, the uncooperative callers, the never-ending stress—what was I thinking? I don’t remember any of this in the job description.
I had visions of a grateful public calling in to thank me profusely for helping them during their time of need. Officers were singing me praises for the impossible tasks that I had performed on my shift. I was receiving congratulatory remarks from the chief and mayor for being the best 911 dispatcher that ever came through the department. After all, I was a 911 professional and I was going to make a difference in the world—all for $6.21 an hour!
What We Do Is Worthwhile
Now, back to my unhappy friend, the poster. There were many responses from other public safety professionals lamenting over all the things that get under their skin, including the hours we work, being under appreciated, the clash with field units, the mandated overtime and, most importantly, the lack of proper compensation.
It’s always amazed me how Americans prioritize occupations. You can be a talented athlete or actor and make literally millions of dollars per year. Then you have occupations, like the public safety professional, who’s responsible for human lives every day. We take calls from the mentally ill, the abused, the intoxicated and the victims of horrible crimes. We’re cursed at, overworked and underpaid. Our field units are harassed by the very people who call for assistance. They work in miserable conditions: extreme heat, rain, snow, etc. We have to make sure that we follow the rules and policies or else we’re disciplined, lose our certifications or lose our job. We make split-second decisions that not only may affect someone else’s life, but our own personal safety as well. Then we have the media and public overanalyze and pick the incident apart, trying to tell us what we could have or should have done.
It’s a wonder anyone at all signs up for what we do, much less make an entire career of it. But we did. Why did we choose this occupation? My heart just broke for all my fellow PSTs on that site as I read post after post. It made me so sad. What we do is so important. That’s what we have to hold on to. The victims who we have rescued know what we do is significant. Our loved ones know how critical our job is. Our coworkers, supervisors and administrators know what we do is monumental. And more importantly, we know what we do is worthwhile.
We Need to Support Each Other
Trust me when I say I know what it’s like to be “stuck” in a position that you’re absolutely miserable in. I was one of the lucky ones and was able to transfer to a department that recognized my hard work and dedication. Monetarily, I would love to be making more but in today’s economic climate, I’m happy to have a job with good benefits. The only thing that kept me going when things were so bad was my shift mates—my family. We helped each other the best that we could. We covered each other’s vacation time and we let each other vent as often as necessary. We swapped shifts to help each other out when someone needed it. Don’t get me wrong—just like any other family we had our problems and difficulties, but all in all, we were family.
Sometimes when things get hard, each other is all we have. We need to support each other. We are the only ones that know what it’s really like. Only another public safety professional knows how it feels to hear or watch someone else die, to hear a parent’s anguish cry as they lose their baby to SIDS or violence. To talk to a rape victim as she tries to describe what has happened to her. What about dealing with the suspect of those crimes? We have to keep our personal thoughts and anger in check while dealing with these people in order not to compromise the case. Only our public safety family knows what this is like to have to endure day after day.
We need to support each other, folks. Learn the signs of stress. Don’t let yourselves become overwhelmed. The typical public safety professional is wired so differently when others. We're strong personalities. We want to be in control at all times. We have a need to rescue. We don’t like to admit that we need help sometimes. We fear that we will look inferior or weak to our peers. Thankfully times are changing. There are now programs designed specifically for the public safety professionals. There are trained professionals, as well as peers, who can and want to help us. Hopefully you have access to a good Critical Incident Stress Management Team. There's help out there.
Meanwhile, in between the big calls we have each other. Because sometimes it’s the little calls in between the big ones that catches us off guard. A certain sound, smell or sight can easily trigger something in our subconscious that can bring back a flood of memories from calls past. Or maybe a personal tragedy or a particularly difficult call that you thought you filed away in the back of your brain. We need to understand that it can happen to anyone at any time. We need to be supportive of each other.
There's so much in our careers that we can't control. We should concentrate on the things that we can control. We can control whether or not our profession controls us. Managers keep an eye on your people. If you notice they need a little something extra to get them thru a shift, whether it be walk around the building or some time off, don’t leave it unchecked. Your employees are your most important asset. We spend so much time, money and energy in hiring and training these extraordinary people we should also make sure they remain mentally healthy as well. Just knowing that you care about their well-being will bring about a better morale.
As I think back over what I’ve written here, I ask myself again: why did I choose this profession? My answer: Because I want to help people. It’s the same answer I had 20 years ago.
Why do people choose public safety? You may hear different answers from different people, but essentially, we all want to make a difference in our community. And you know what? I think we made the right choice. We wouldn’t still be here if we didn’t. We’re important. What we do is important and we make a difference.
Choose to be the best you can be. Choose to keep yourself healthy. Choose to not let this job get the best of you. I know you can do it. I know you can because you are a public safety professional.
Be safe, and be healthy.