A New Perspective of Stress in Dispatching


When you see the picture of the glass in its captured state, the age-old question first comes to mind…

“Is the glass half-full or half-empty?”

Your answer supposedly reflects your perception and outlook on life. If the glass is half-full, you are an optimistic Piglet… happy-happy, joy-joy, sunshine and butterflies everywhere. If the glass is half-empty, you are a pessimistic Eeyore… sadly moping around under a raincloud that follows you no matter where you go. Instead, I propose we start looking at the glass from a new perspective and ask a different question…

“How heavy is this glass?”

I ask this question using a plastic water bottle in many of the training classes I teach. I see the wheels in peoples’ brains start turning as they quickly try to crunch some numbers. They figure the average-sized plastic water bottle holds 16-18 ounces of water when full, so half of that is 8-9 ounces of water. They add a couple more ounces to include the actual bottle and they conclude the answer is approximately 10 ounces. 

Many of their eyes twinkle with pride as they pat themselves on the backs for their logic. And that really is brilliant deductive reasoning. However, I seem to steal all their joy when I tell them that does not answer the question I asked. A bewildered look of glazed confusion appears on all the faces in the room.

Although 10 ounces is sound reasoning for how much the glass WEIGHS, that does not answer the question of how HEAVY it is.

What if I told you to stand up and hold that plastic water bottle in your hand with your arm fully extended, elbow locked, straight out in front of you parallel to the ground at eye level? Can you do that? Sure, easy enough. How heavy is the bottle? Not very heavy at all. You can spin it around, twirl it around and toss it up in the air with ease. But what if I told you to hold it out there in that position for an hour. Now is that plastic bottle starting to feel heavy? You better believe it is.

That is ironic because we just concluded above that the bottle filled at half capacity only weighs 10 ounces. How did something that only weighs 10 ounces suddenly become so heavy? Several factors come into play: the stamina of the person holding the bottle, the position in which the bottle is being held, the duration of time it is being held, and its contents (because a bottle half-full of water might be different than a bottle half-full of lead) are just some of the variables that can be taken into consideration.

Inevitably, sooner or later, your arm is going to get tired. You will feel the tingling sensation as your arm screams for the lack of blood it is receiving. The muscles, tendons, and ligaments laboring to hold that bottle will become exhausted. Your arm will drop from fatigue, sending that bottle crashing to the ground.

Holding that bottle out in front of you in that position is what it feels like to work as a dispatcher, except the bottle is not filled with water. It is filled with stress.

It is not so bad at first, but the stress that comes with a job in dispatching accumulates with every shift. Six months, one year, five years, ten years working as a dispatcher… and you are still holding that bottle out in front of you. It is quite possible you could feel exhausted. It could be early in your career; it could be later in your career; it could be after you retire. You cannot fight the laws of physics in holding the bottle, but you can change the outcome, so you do not send the bottle crashing to the ground.

Stress is like alcohol: different amounts affect different people differently. I can go out and meet my youngest brother at a sports bar to catch a game. One beer for me is the same as three beers for him and we are at the same level of inebriation. How is that possible? Just like the water bottle, several factors come into play: stamina, metabolic rate, body-build and tolerance are just a few of the variables to take into consideration.

Stress can work the same way. What one person might find very stressful, another person might not at all. We can take two dispatchers who work at the same agency and have them respond to the same incident. One might feel that incident to be very stressful, while the second does not feel any stress at all. Again, several factors come into play as variables to explain how that is possible. But that is not what is important.

We must do a better job to help all dispatchers understand it is okay to take a break and set that plastic bottle down, instead of them feeling like they have to constantly hold it without any rest. We must provide them with the necessary resources to ensure they are fit to serve our communities. That rest and those resources will allow them to recuperate and recharge, so they find the strength to come back tomorrow. We must empower them to have a resilient mindset, so they have healthy coping mechanisms and support systems in place for when that plastic bottle does feel heavy.

It really does not matter if you perceive the glass as half-full or half-empty. What is important is that you acknowledge sometimes that glass can feel heavy. And that is okay. Seeing and hearing what you experience in your job as a dispatcher every day can make that glass feel heavy, regardless of its actual weight. Instead of deciding if your glass is half-full or half-empty, ask yourself… does the glass feel heavy? If so, set it down and rest so you can come back tomorrow to pick it up and resume.

About the Author 

Ryan Dedmon, MA

Outreach Director for the 911 Training Institute and Retired police dispatcher

Ryan Dedmon serves as the Outreach Director for the 911 Training Institute, a private company that provides training and consulting services to 9-1-1 agencies. He is a retired police dispatcher from Southern California and served 12 years in local law enforcement. Ryan is a California POST-certified Academy Instructor and has a Master’s in Forensic Psychology. He blends his education and experience behind the console to help dispatchers recover and grow from post-traumatic stress. 

Ryan Dedmon

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