April 8-14 is National Public Safety Telecommunications Week. This is a time to celebrate the hard working staff in our emergency communications centres who dispatch our first responders to help us in our times of greatest need. To dispatch is to “send someone or something to a destination for a purpose”. That seems simple and straightforward enough, but, while technically correct, it doesn’t quite capture the strength of character required to be a dispatcher or a public safety telecommunications worker.
During emergencies and traumatic experiences, we depend on these people as our link to much needed help and support. Dispatchers play a significant role supporting our community, and personally, I’m grateful to know there is someone there on the other end of the phone who can help me when I am experiencing an emergency situation. The job calls for a unique combination of traits, including sound judgement, exceptional communication skills, empathy and emotional intelligence. They utilize confidence, decision making and sometimes creativity and ingenuity as they resolve challenges and emergencies faced by the general public each and every day. The job also requires that the dispatcher demonstrate perseverance, knowing that as soon as they finish supporting one call, there will be another call to take.
When there is a crisis, we are often inundated with news and images of the tragedy and typically see first responders working to resume order and safety in the community. We often don’t see images of public safety telecommunications centres where staff are handling incoming calls, or hear interviews with dispatchers and operators. Because of this, I want to take a moment to put them at the forefront and thank them for providing support to our communities 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and I call upon each of us to think about the vital role that dispatchers play in our individual lives and broader communities.
As part of their jobs, dispatchers and telecommunications staff are exposed to traumatic events. So much so that their role is one of those identified for presumptive coverage for work-related Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as part of the Supporting Ontario’s First Responders Act. So, as we take a moment to celebrate these professionals and all that they provide our communities, I want to also encourage all public safety telecommunications staff to become aware of the signs and symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and seek early treatment if they are experiencing them.
PTSD is a mental health condition caused by witnessing or experiencing actual or threatened death, serious injury or violence. Being affected by the events that you may experience while providing support on a call involving these types of events is completely normal. However, if the thoughts or memories of these events continue to seriously affect you long after the call, you may be experiencing PTSD. Some signs and symptoms include nightmares, uncontrollable memories, persistent fear, avoidance and severe anxiety.
It is believed that PTSD is caused by a complex mix of life experiences including the amount and severity of trauma you have experienced since early childhood, the way your brain regulates the chemicals and hormones your body releases in response to stress, and inherited mental health risks such as an increased risk of anxiety or depression and inherited aspects of your personality or temperament. People are more at risk for developing PTSD if they:
- Work in a profession that increases their likelihood of being exposed to traumatic events.
- Experience intense or long lasting trauma.
- Feel horror, helplessness or extreme fear.
- Witness people get hurt or killed.
- Experience trauma earlier in life, including childhood abuse or neglect.
- Have other medical issues such as anxiety or depression.
- Lack a good support system of family or friends.
To learn more about PTSD, please visit www.firstrespondersfirst.ca. FirstRespondersFirst was created to help employers and first responders take action to address work-related traumatic exposures. The site includes an evidence-based screening tool with benchmarks that was developed through research conducted by the Canadian Institute for Public Safety Research and Treatment (CIPSRT). The CIPSRT’s mission is to provide a Canadian hub for strategic public safety awareness research and analysis, knowledge translation and mobilization, working with public safety leaders and academics from across Canada to develop and deploy solutions that meet the current and future needs of Canadian Public Safety Personnel.