Steps for Ensuring Effective Mental Health in PSAPs
“In an emergency, call 9-1-1” is one of the very first things we teach our children. “The 9-1-1 operator will send help.”
This is taken as a given, a blessing that we take for granted. Over half-a-million calls are made to 9-1-1 every day. Whenever citizens need police, fire or medical assistance in a hurry, they call 9-1-1. They know that by making that call, help will be sent. No matter what the emergency, whether it is a house on fire, a person having a heart attack, a bank being held up, or a multi-car crash with injuries, the person they talk to will know what to do.
The person under the headset that answers the call, the professional 9-1-1 telecommunicator, must be ready for anything. They must be ready to answer that call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, whenever their help is needed. They must be ready to console a frantic mother whose child is missing, give CPR instructions to someone who witnessed a heart attack, decode a cryptic message from a potential active-shooter victim, or talk down a suicidal caller. In a given day, a 9-1-1 telecommunicator can hear anything.
Dealing with these situations, the constant barrage of traumatic events, takes its toll on call takers. The psychological stress caused by exposure to these events causes health and performance issues which must be addressed to ensure the well being of our “first” first responders.
With the advent of Next Generation 9-1-1, the 9-1-1 system will deliver a barrage of new information through an array of media to the call taker, enhancing the information they receive. The prospect of information overload is a concern among supervisors and administrators of 9-1-1 Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs). Combined with the traumatic nature of the events they must deal with, it is important that these stressors are managed.
And while awareness of mental health issues in 911 has grown significantly over the last decade, awareness of existing support systems and standards is still uneven in the industry. The National Emergency Number Association (NENA) has a standard specifically on 9-1-1 Acute/Traumatic and Chronic Stress Management that should be adopted by all PSAPs.
To comply with this Standard, PSAPs must establish a Comprehensive Stress Management Program (CSMP) for their personnel.
This program provides several complementary elements, including:
* Training in 9-1-1 acute and chronic stress risk management
* Providing educational materials and resources on stress management to employees,
* Participation by telecommunicators in Critical Incidence Stress Management (CISM) (including debriefing sessions when involved in traumatic call events) , and a
* Actively encouraging the use of psychotherapy delivered by qualified trauma therapists. The latter should be made available as needed, supported by Employee Assistance Programs and/or insurance benefits.
The standard also recommends the establishment of PSAP Peer Support Programs, which utilize PSAP staff who are trained to provide confidential emotional support upon request of a PSAP employee without administering advice or solutions. Knowing how to help each other, not just those who call in, is critically important.
In addition, comprehensive, ongoing certification/training on structured call-taking processes for all call types is encouraged. This includes the management of suicidal callers and calls involving those with mental health issues. Referenced in this section is NENA’s Standard for Emergency Call Processing, NENA 56-006. It should be noted that this standard, along with 56-501, Silent or Hang-up Calls for Service, 56-001, Guidelines for Minimum Response to Wireless 9-1-1 Calls, and 56-005, 9-1-1 Call Answering Standard, have been combined into the soon-to-be-published NENA Standard for 9-1-1 Call Processing, ANS Candidate NENA-STA-020.1. NENA is also revising the Suicide Prevention Standard, NENA-STA-001.1-2013, which provides guidelines for managing suicide emergencies.
Next Generation 911 will change the way that PSAPs operate and enhanced the way that Public Safety is delivered to communities. It is important to provide telecommunicators with effective mental health support systems today.
We strongly encourage all PSAP directors and employees to review the NENA standards listed above and work together to establish, update, or improve their Comprehensive Stress Management Program.
Guest Author: Steve O’Conor, ENP is a public safety professional with over 40 years of experience and is a past President of the National Emergency Number Association (NENA)