by Samantha Hawkins
In our line of work keeping up a strong and pain-resistant emotional veneer is harder than ever to do these days. Some days are more stressful than others, and some days we may feel like just turning in our two-week notice and searching for anything other than “911 dispatcher” and “call center agent” on Indeed.com for available jobs in our zip code.
Being an essential worker in public safety isn’t particularly fun, I know. I feel exactly the same way. As an emergency communications officer of five years with Cobb County 911 in Marietta, GA, I haven’t questioned my commitment to the job this hard since my first year of answering phones and working a police and fire radio on my own. 2020 has felt like one ultimate test of our patience. And truly, for those of us behind the Thin Gold Line, who soldier on and carry ourselves into work (along with our lunch bag and backpack full of emergency snacks), we find ourselves in a position where we have had to really put into practice some of our best listening skills and customer service techniques. But with all the chaos, drama, disappointment, and unfriendliness that is raging on, outside the four walls of our 911 center, how much consideration are we giving to the environment inside our workplace?
It’s too easy at times for the unpleasantness of a bad 911 call to kill our mood or damper our high spirits. Personally, I have worked around others who seem to live and work by default in “cynic” mode. They see everything through grim, sarcastic lenses; they find nothing to be good-humored anymore, and their new first language has become condescension. Their jaded perspective of the job now bleeds into every aspect of what they do or say. And as a result of their cynical attitude toward everything or their rude personality in general, other employees cannot help but feel growing pessimism too. It only ever takes one rotten apple to spoil the whole bushel …but I’m sure we’ve all heard that one before.
Our job as 911 call takers, and police and fire dispatchers isn't for everyone. Everyone isn’t good at customer service. We have to be excellent at it though. However, it doesn’t just stop when we take off our headset or when we wrap up that 911 call from an elderly woman in hysterics over finding her husband lying on the floor. Customer service in our field isn’t just about taking care of our callers; it’s about how we treat each other (our coworkers) as well. In every workplace there is that one employee, maybe more than one, who has the unique ability to single-handedly demolish your smile in a matter of seconds or can bring down the morale in the room with just a few careless words.
The purpose of this blog isn’t to help you recognize that person in someone else or give you ammunition to go back to your job and point the finger at them. it’s about us examining ourselves individually and taking the right steps from today on to ensure we aren’t that person.
Be the kind of coworker you would be happy to work with every day.
It’s a simple idea based off of an even simpler ethical principle: The Golden Rule. Treat others as you want to be treated. Do you sometimes feel like you get very little support for the job you do? Is it common for you to feel unnoticed or underappreciated after handling another traumatic call with grace and calm? If either of these is true, imagine what your coworkers must feel.
Now ask yourself, how much emotional support do you give to those you work with after they’ve taken a harrowing call? It takes less than a minute to ask the person sitting directly behind you if they’re okay or if they need you to relieve them of their radio for a bit. It takes less than a minute to send off a quick “hey, how are you holding up?” to the call taker seated several desks away from you after they just took that drug overdose call. Everyone can use a reassuring word; the same way we give reassurance to our callers that they are “doing great” when they are performing chest compressions on someone who’s gone into cardiac arrest. A kind word goes a long way for someone who needs to know that someone cares about them or notices their work ethic.
If a coworker from an opposite shift volunteers to spend their day off helping out with manpower on your shift, how about thanking him or her with their favorite candy from the vending machine? Maybe the next time you hear a coworker exercise patience with a “frequent flyer” caller, you could take the time to praise them for their handling of the call. Maybe reward them with a challenge coin to show them how well you think they did, or tell a supervisor about the call so they can enter in an “Above and Beyond” in the employee’s personnel file.
Think about the attitude you keep when you’re at work. Anyone would agree that proactive customer service is central to our profession as dispatchers. Friendly, personable, and honest interactions with callers aid us in forming trustworthy relationships. Your duty to provide help to the citizen on the other end of a 911 call goes beyond just repetitive persistence or reciting scripted instructions from protocol in a steady, competent manner (although these are good practices); it’s also personalizing the emergency service you are providing to fit their needs, and offering comfort to them in a dark or uncertain time in their life.
Likewise, being a good coworker isn’t limited to just knowing your coworkers’ first names and cell numbers or giving them a halfhearted smile a few times throughout the day. Being a good coworker is applying the same consistent customer service attitude to your work relationships. It is making an effort to build trust with your coworkers and continually demonstrating respect for what they have to say. It is listening to those who you work with, accepting feedback, and being understanding of their feelings. It is greeting them with a smile on your face and showing friendliness to them even if they may not be friendly back.
You might be having a hard day and maybe you don’t particularly feel like mustering up the energy to put on a happy face. Just think, perhaps someone in your workplace is having an even harder day than you, and seeing you smile might be all the positivity they need to be inspired to have a good day. Happiness is just as contagious as a bad mood; why not make the decision to spread happiness, not negativity?
What about the conversations you have on the job? Do you use your speech to uplift and encourage, or to tear down, gossip, and spread hurtful rumors? Even if the information you are spreading around is true, that doesn’t give you the right to help it make its way around the office, especially at the expense of the reputation of a coworker. You are literally the voice of public safety: the unsung superhero beneath the headset. The words that you say hold life in them, and how you say them is equally important. You wouldn’t speak harshly to your caller, yell at them or put them down with your words. Not just because you’re talking on a recorded line, but because you know if they are calling you then they feel they are having an emergency. They are reaching out to you for help.
In the same way, you should guard what you say to your coworkers and not tolerate others yelling, or speaking condescendingly, or talking angrily on the work floor. It is your individual responsibility to keep hostility out of the job. If your coworker can’t trust you to be empathetic toward them and kind, why would they ever trust you for peer support or look to you for encouragement after a bothersome work day? Your words are everything to your callers, but they are everything to those who you work around as well. What you say can be the reason someone has a really great day or a really pathetic day.
Gossip doesn’t have to be a pastime in your workplace and you don’t have to spend your time talking behind others’ backs. Decide to use your voice for good even when you’re off of the phone by speaking positively about coworkers, even when others are criticizing them. If someone appears to be struggling on the job or out of sorts, recall a time for them when they did an excellent job on a call or remind them of why they chose to do this job in the first place. Give them hope that as bad as today might have been, tomorrow is looking up to be a better day just because what they do for a living is special and life-saving.
Finally, being the kind of attentive and compassionate coworker to others that you would like them to be to you means standing up for those who are mistreated or being discriminated against. See something, say something. Every single employee holds some degree of responsibility for what happens in their workplace. It begins with accountability to each other and definitely to ourselves. The behavior that we allow to continue around us sets the tone for the atmosphere we work in. Harassment only festers in a work environment that doesn't discourage aggressive or uninvited behavior. When we say nothing at all and accept when unethical choices are made before our very eyes, we in fact condone the actions (whatever they are) with our silence. If no one ever calls out misconduct when they see it happening or brings it to the attention of supervision when someone is getting unfair treatment from another coworker, then the hostility will continue to spread like wildfire.
Being a more sympathetic coworker is knowing that sometimes people might not see themselves as victims or they might be too afraid to fight their own battles. So, accountability to those we work with may require us to fight for and beside them. Remember that you may one day be in their shoes and you will need them to stand tall in your corner.
Starting today, not tomorrow, decide what sort of coworker you want to be. Will you be the "wet towel" of the room that brings despair and discontentment? Will you settle comfortably into the role of "angry, jaded dispatcher with the perpetual chip on your shoulder" who shows no sensitivity to those on the work floor? Or will you determine to be better and make everyone else better too by showing care in how you treat your coworkers? Your attitude makes all the difference.
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