Above the Trees

Finding Calm After The Call

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Consider them the first of the first responders: the men and women who pick up the line when someone in need dials 9-1-1.

Last year, 911 dispatchers sent help after a call from an 8-year-old boy in Tacoma, Wash., whose dad had just stabbed him and shot the boy’s mom. Dispatchers also provided clear instructions to a Boulder, Colo., student who called for an ambulance after finding a young man lying unresponsive on the floor of a fraternity house. And when a 7-year-old in Las Vegas called to report that her mom was having a baby, a 911 dispatcher was there to coach the courageous girl and her 5-year-old sister in the basics of childbirth.

Nearly every call that a 911 dispatcher deals with, from the trivial to the tragic, prompts an emotional response. Through it all, a dispatcher must think clearly and quickly while maintaining a countenance that’s calm and direct. It’s a tall order, and one that can lead to an enormous amount of stress stress that often results in job dissatisfaction, declining performance or even emotional and physical problems.

At the Office of Emergency Management & Commu­ni­cations in Chicago–the city’s 911 call center–stress is taken as seriously as the calls that prompt it. And the building brims with resources to help its staff shoulder the emotional burden of fielding up to 20,000 calls a day for fire, police and ambulance services.

“When you work in this environment so long, you understand there are certain aspects of the job that show in people’s faces, in their physical behavior,” says Marista Keating, acting deputy director of police dispatch. “We pay great attention to it because health is paramount to our success.”

The calming effects start in the heart of the call center itself, called “the floor.” Here lights are set low to make computer screens easier to see, and the room temperature is set a touch higher than normal. “When you sit all day, you don’t generate as much heat, so this keeps you from getting cold,” Keating explains. Additionally, fresh air circulates 10 times a day; every workstation is equipped with a personal heater; and all computer monitors, keyboard shelves and seats are adjustable so each worker can make his or her space as comfortable as possible.

At the core of the call center is an expansive atrium flooded with natural light and filled with cushy couches and thriving plants. “It’s easy to lose your sense of night and day on the floor,” Keating says. “This room gives you a dose of the outdoors.” Although the décor is driven by a minimalist, Asian vibe, the low tables are stacked with magazines and games, letting staffers lose themselves in narrative or find community over a game board. If anyone needs more than camaraderie, the city runs an assistance program that includes professional counseling.

Focusing on Fitness

Keating also recognizes that eating is a stress response, and workers are encouraged to take advantage of an on-site gym, which she calls “our stress reduction room.” Near the expected free weights and treadmills hangs a feature Keating says can get a lot of use on rough days: a punching bag. “I’ve kicked it a few times myself,” she admits.

There’s also a full calendar of programs designed to de-stress, such as chair massage events where dispatchers get free 15minute rubdowns from massage students, health fairs and programs featuring stress management speakers. Workers have even organized diet and exercise groups, losing a collective 300 pounds in 2004.

And if it all gets too overwhelming, Keating says, staffers know it’s OK to flip their toggle to the off position and just leave the floor–a sort of “wander as needed” policy. Because some days, she says, a walk outside can be exactly what the dispatcher ordered.

Above the Trees looks at leaders and industries outside the law. It lets you draw analogies to how you run your business, how you deal with your clients and how you face your own challenges.

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