Making mental wellness among the first first responders a priority, says Seattle 9-1-1 director

by Chris Fischer - Deputy Interim Director, Seattle 9-1-1

At Seattle 9-1-1, we handle about 850,000 calls a year. That includes 9-1-1 calls and administrative calls and non-emergency lines.

It’s the high priority calls, which is any kind of weapons-involved calls. It’s shootings and domestic violence calls and police pursuits, which don't happen much anymore. And it’s a tremendous number of calls where people are calling to ask questions. They don't know what resources are available to them.

As the Interim Deputy Director for Seattle 9-1-1, I am responsible for over 127 dispatchers and 16 supervisors. We dispatch for the Seattle Police Department, primarily, although we support other city services, including parking enforcement, parks department and some of the other city agencies.

Our big challenge lately has been folks who are in a mental health crisis. They’re looking for some kind of help. It's not a police matter, but they do need some kind of assistance. So the challenge for us is trying to find who to send. Between law enforcement and fire, they usually are able to get to the scene and determine how we can best help these folks.

Being in an urban environment, this is a pretty busy center. And it's a very unique time right now with lots of weapons and lots of drug issues and lots of homelessness. It's a pretty challenging time for our folks.

A stressful job

Being a dispatcher or call taker is a very stressful job.

We work holidays. We work weekends. We work night shift. We work lots of hours. We have a lot of folks who are raising young families. We have single parents. There are daycare issues. There are babysitting issues. Sometimes you’re prepared to get off shift and somebody calls in sick and you have to stay, you have to arrange for childcare on the fly.

There’s just a ton of challenges. Unless other people in your family come from an environment where they work shift work, they don’t understand when you work nights and you have to sleep all day. They don’t understand that sometimes you can’t be there Christmas morning because you’re at work. And that adds another level of stress.

As agencies, we have to do our very best to try to create an environment where we encourage people to be emotionally and physically healthy – but the mental and physical stressors can take a toll.

The mental stressors include taking calls from people who are in crisis most of the time. Not only are they afraid, but there may be things going on in their home or they’re seeing something that’s very, very difficult for them to explain.

We’re asking them questions. And they don’t understand why we need the information. Once we take the information and dispatch the call, we’ve moved on to the next call. We don’t get to see that thing all the way through. And lack of closure is very, very difficult. You don’t know the outcome of the patient you just talked to for 20 minutes. You don’t know if they made it or not.

Plus, the system records every keystroke you type, every word you say and it’s subject to attorneys and public scrutiny. You have to be thoughtful about what you say. You do your very best to remember that. But under stressful situations, sometimes you say things that you wish you didn’t. At the end of the day, you do the very best you can to make sure that you are communicating appropriately.

There are also the physical stressors. Sitting in that chair, most of the time you don’t have time to eat. We do make sure that people take breaks. But in many small centers, folks don’t get breaks. They eat right at the console. You take two bites and you spend most of your time eating cold food and drinking too much coffee.  

You can’t just get up and walk around. You can’t get up and use the restroom whenever you want. You wait for your break and sometimes you don’t get your break. The emotional toll of the calls and the physical toll is a recipe for not a healthy lifestyle sometimes.

Caring for those who answer the call

It takes a very certain and special person to be able to do this job. There’s a lot to learn. There’s a lot to memorize. You’ve got to have good common sense to process the information you’re getting from the caller. You need to know what questions to ask depending on the type of call. We also use some pretty sophisticated technology, telephone systems, computer-assisted dispatch systems, mapping.

As the calls come in, we enter them into a computer system while we’re talking and typing at the same time. We take bits of information from different callers to put the puzzle together and draw some conclusions about what’s happening.

Situations change very quickly if they’re volatile. Multiple people might be handling different accounts of the incident, but it’s all the same call. It’s different pieces of information, so you’ve got to piece that together and make some sense out of what you’re hearing.

Not everybody’s got the emotional stamina. Not everybody’s got the ability to be empathetic to the caller and yet not get overly involved because we can't fix it for them. It’s really hard to not carry that with you when you handle call after call and you don’t know the outcome.

Coming out of COVID

Coming into Seattle 9-1-1 in February of 2021 was probably one of the worst periods of time the folks who worked here had been through. There was civil unrest all over the country. Seattle got hit particularly hard. There was anti-police sentiment and we were getting threatening phone calls.

Folks were coming to work and people were throwing things at their vehicles. There were protests that blocked their ability to get to work. They were very afraid for their safety.

And as essential personnel they still had to come to work every day – even as the rest of the world was working remotely. They had some pretty significant challenges because daycares weren't open. Schools were not open. People in their family were getting sick. They were getting sick. It was a really tough time.

They also had a management team that was not allowed to come to work because they were not essential personnel. These folks were just trying to survive. When Chief Chris Lombard and I came in, that's the way I described it to him. I said, “They're in survival mode.”

They were not thriving.

They were just surviving. So we had to figure out a better way to take care of them and help them feel safe and make sure that they know that we're here to support them and we made a very conscious decision that we're going to put these people first. We're going to make sure that these people understand that they bring value.

I had some 120 people and I spent an hour interviewing every single one of them asking them some questions so that I could better understand how we could help them. Some of the things Chief Lombard and I started doing after the interviews was look for the common denominators.

  • Our people didn't feel empowered to be a part of any of the decision making. They'd been in an environment where they were directed what to do and they did what they were told. So we started looking at the policies and procedures. What's working and what’s not working?
  • They didn’t have good work-life balance. People were working an awful lot of overtime and being required to work on their days off.  We wanted to give them some certainty that when they went home on their Friday, they weren’t going to get called on their Saturday and Sunday to come back to work.
  • And morale was very low. That was an issue that came up time and again. People were not happy with the environment they were working in. They felt like they had been abandoned by their management. So we prioritized where we were going to put our resources. We were going to make sure that people got time off.

In doing that, we knew we would not be able to answer all the non-emergency lines. We found alternatives for people who needed to report by allowing them to do it online, for example. Or we said, unless you have an emergency, we're not going to be able to get to your call as quickly because we're handling 9-1-1 calls.

Making changes

We started implementing in-service training and making sure people felt comfortable enough to do their job. We started to send the message that we value you. You are important. You're not a number here. And we made accommodations for some folks who were having child care issues and couldn't work certain shifts because at the end of the day, if they don't come to work, we can't get the job done.

As we were separating from being a part of the police department, we realized we wouldn't have access to their peer support team or their critical stress response services. We had an employee who had a real strong interest and had done some work in wanting to create a program just for the 9-1-1 center. So we were able to tap into that employee and say, “Let's build out our own team,” because we know that there are times when folks need professional support from a mental health professional, depending on the type of call.

We identified that as a priority. We got the financial resources to get a mental health professional on contract to help us build out our team. So when they have a difficult call – or they're having trouble processing or it's starting to affect their health or affect their home life – they can reach out to a peer support member. It's absolutely confidential. It has nothing to do with their work performance. It is more to help them with their mental health and well-being so that they can continue to be a productive employee.

Results speak for themselves

Some of the things we've seen as a result of focusing on our people and supporting them is they step up. They want to be involved in work groups. They have an opinion on things. They know we'll listen. We've got some of the very best and brightest in this business. And they were being underutilized. So we were able to ask them for input, suggestions.

We knew we needed to hire faster. So when we became our own department, we were able to take that over. There are 12 PSAPs in this county and we're all competing to get the very best people. We accelerated our background checks. We accelerated the psychological testing so that we could get them in the door and get them committed to our agency. We had a very strong training unit and they stepped up their game and were hiring people and training people just as fast as we could get them through the door.

Then we saw people who wanted to promote into supervisory positions, which was very refreshing to me because that wasn’t the case before. People said, “I want to be a part of this organization. I want to be a part of the leadership team here because I can make a difference.” They were engaged and they wanted to be a part of making this a new, healthy, highly functional organization. And that made me very proud.

The change in the culture improved morale. And knowing that they are being supported helps them support the community in a healthier way. They're not just going through the motions. They want to help. They're not burned out.

We saw the quality of the work improve. We started to see our productivity go up. We started to see our sick leave go down. We started to see people volunteering for overtime because they weren't required to work so much overtime where they would volunteer so somebody else could get some time off.

Living up to the challenge

The biggest challenge 9-1-1 centers have is creating an environment where people want to come to work there. And that means supporting their health and wellness. That means folks who are in responsible positions for 9-1-1 centers need to make the environment a healthy, good place to work.

Call takers need to be paid well. They need to be treated fairly. They need to have the equipment they need. They need to have good chairs. They need to have safe parking. All the things that we don't think about that are important to employees because once they come in and go to work, they shouldn't be worrying about whether their car is going to get broken into because it's parked on the street. Or whether they're going to be safe walking to their car when they get off shift. We've got to create an environment where people feel safe, valued, listened to and empowered to make suggestions.

Improved culture, better metrics

There's so much emphasis on the metrics and performance because we have so much data. We can measure everything. We know how long it takes them to answer the phone. We know how long it takes them on a phone call. We know how long they take a break.

We need to put more emphasis on the person and the value that they bring and make sure that we communicate that. I'm all about good performance. But, we have to balance that with the needs of the employees to make sure they get meal breaks, they get rest breaks, they get their days off.

As the culture’s improved, people are staying longer and become better trained and more proficient at their job. We see our metrics improve. If you focus on the people and you invest in the people, you'll get good performance.

Chris Fischer is the interim deputy director for Seattle 9-1-1, which is known as the Community Safety and Communications Center (CSCC). She began her career as a dispatcher for the police department in the City of Renton, a suburb of Seattle and then was a part of a consolidated regional center in South King County, Washington.  She ascended through the ranks, as a dispatcher, call taker, supervisor and deputy director before becoming executive director of operations for 9-1-1. She remained in that role for 22 years before retiring from Valley Communications Center. After retirement, Fischer helped another agency in King County consolidate and stand up a new center. In February 2021, she came out of retirement to return to Seattle to stand up the new CSCC.