Ind. 911 center goes 'all in' to create support system for dispatchers
A peer support team, made up of 10 St. Joseph County dispatchers, works to improve the mental and emotional health of staff members
By Grace McDermott
South Bend Tribune
ST. JOSEPH COUNTY, Ind. — "Nine-one-one, what's your emergency?"
Dan Tinkel has repeated this phrase countless times during his 21 years as a 911 dispatcher. Along with the 82 others who answer the phone lines at the St. Joseph County 911 center, he talks to people on some of the worst days of their lives.
"There is no such thing as an average day," Tinkel said. "Some days, you assume it's going to be easy and it's nothing but chaos. You just never know what you're going to hear when you pick up that line. It could be the worst thing imaginable."
Tinkel recently became the leader of a new initiative at the center called the "peer support team," which officially began Jan. 1. Made up of 10 dispatchers, the team's goal is to improve the mental and emotional health of 911 operators.
In a unique move, each dispatcher received a poker chip.
Inspired by the sobriety chips used in organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous, the poker chip, which reads "No One Fights Alone," is a token to remind the dispatchers they are not alone on their hardest days. It can also be used as a nonverbal request for help.
"Sometimes it's hard to take the first step and say, 'I need help,'" Tinkel said. "Some people are self-conscious. If you pull out the poker chip and just slide it over, we know we need to have a discussion and you don't have to worry about saying something and losing your emotional control in that moment."
There often isn't a system in place to help dispatchers cope with the stresses that accompany the job. Foster said many dispatchers have the mindset of wanting to believe they are fine, despite the challenges of the profession.
"Just about everyone in 911 has dealt with a post-traumatic stress situation," Foster said. "The peer support team is here for any of our co-workers to be able to come to us to discuss a problem, to vent, to be able to talk something through if they need to, or if they just need somebody to sit there and listen."
If a peer support team member feels their co-worker may need more help than the team can provide, they have the information needed to connect people to outside resources and professionals.
Jim Marshall, who led the training for the local team through the 911 Training Institute in Petoskey, Mich., said 911 operators are often not prepared to address or even acknowledge their emotional response to difficult calls.
"The majority have not had adequate training to understand the risks they face," Marshall said. "Peer supporters are trained to be alongside people, look for signs that they're struggling, and bridge them to evidence-based treatment providers."
Because the team is made up of dispatchers, it can be easier for their co-workers to come to them and feel understood, he said.
"They get each other," Marshall said. "They'll say things they don't want to say to anyone else. With trained peer supporters, they're sliding that poker chip in front of their peers. They can actually help screen and identify peers who don't even realize they're struggling."
During the peer support team's time at the 911 Training Institute, they first trained in self-care and resilience, before learning how to support their peers by slowing down their normally busy pace of work to listen and empathize.
Reversing the "suck-it-up" culture several dispatchers described and making it acceptable to ask for help is an important step for 911 responders, Marshall said.
"There has to be a culture in place and a legal system in place at work where it is considered acceptable for people who are experiencing mental health difficulties to seek support, rather than 'tough it out,'" said Dr. Robert T. Muller, author of "Trauma and the Struggle to Open Up," during a phone interview. "There also needs to be education early on for people to know the signs. People can get better from having PTSD, it's a treatable condition."
In addition to the work he's done at his own organization, Tinkel hopes to be able to reach out to nearby dispatch and emergency response agencies as well, both to check in after a difficult incident and to encourage their employees to go through training later this year.
"We have some good resources," Tinkel said. "A lot of agencies don't have the money, time, or manpower, so is there a reason we couldn't be available to outside agencies that need help?"
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