Why Your PSAP Needs a Quiet Room
By: Lisa Rymshaw
I’m a former telecommunicator, and I’ve just earned my doctorate in psychology. One of my goals in using that doctorate degree is to help improve wellness for telecommunicators, both on and off the clock. For my doctoral project, I asked telecommunicators to give me their ideas about changing the work environment to help them recover from the constant barrage of trauma involved with the job. By a landslide, the most popular suggestion was to create a “Quiet Room” onsite.
This suggestion makes so much sense, both physically and psychologically. When telecommunicators handle an event that is even more brutal than normal, they experience negative sensory overload. The brain becomes ambushed with sounds and mental images of the worst of human behavior...the suffering and anguish of the caller or the victim...the emotions of the field responder. All this while shoving down their own reactions.
And yes, in theory, that’s what telecommunicators have signed up for. But they are human. And the truth is, the brain needs a sensory break at that point. But the other truth is, telecommunicators can’t get up and take a drive, or a lunch break, or maybe hide in their paperwork for a while, in the same way that other emergency personnel might do after a horrible event. In fact, it’s often the case that there’s a staffing shortage - so they’re lucky if they get 10 minutes to decompress.
This is why a Quiet Room is so important for the communications center. A Quiet Room provides an immediate sensory shift. The brain needs this type of break in order to correct all the reactions caused by the adrenaline rush that the telecommunicator experienced during a heinous event - heart palpitations, anxiety, tense muscles, high blood pressure, changes to the respiratory and digestive systems. When a telecommunicator does not give the brain a rest from this - even on a ‘typical’ dispatch day - they are causing themselves to become more susceptible to physical and emotional illness, which spills over onto work performance as well as personal relationships.
A Quiet Room addresses this by instantly replacing the traumatic sounds and images in the brain with calmness and relaxation, which helps the body start to function normally again. It also gives the telecommunicator a chance to process the event - not just as a 911 robot, but as an actual human with a heart and a soul...away from the phone and radio noise, and away from the eyes or the opinions of others.
But there is one important caveat. In order for a Quiet Room to work, first and foremost it must be protected as a quiet area. It is definitely not meant to be just another break room. It is a purposeful stepping away from conversations, coffee pots, and the ding of the microwave. Therefore, staff and management MUST be willing to agree to this, and they must also agree to intervene with staff who are not honoring the agreement. While it’s understandable that conversations with friends or phone calls with loved ones sometimes help people process rough moments in life, the Quiet Room is not the area to do that. If a conversation is what you need most at that moment - then please, be considerate and have it somewhere away from the Quiet Room.
Once that is established, it is time to take all of the senses into mind, in order to replace trauma with a calm escape. The following were suggestions from telecommunicators for creating this type of environment.
Sight: low lighting, muted colors, plants, LED candles
Hearing: nature sounds, quiet spa-type music, waterfall
Smell: aromatherapy (nothing overpowering)
Touch: comfortable furniture (not standard office stuff); tissues
Taste: chocolate, hard candies, electric teapot and herbal tea bags; water flavored with lemon/mint, etc. (note: only do this if staff are capable of not travelling in and out of the room just to grab goodies)
A few designated areas were also suggested. For example, many telecommunicators requested an area for storing/using a yoga mat or a large therapy ball for stretching. Others suggested a shelf with self-help or spiritual books, as well as adult coloring books and colored pencils. A few others also suggested an anonymous prayer box.
Obviously, the physical and emotional effects of a traumatic event often last longer than ten minutes in the Quiet Room. Sometimes, decompressing will also require peer support, support from loved ones, group debriefs, and/or therapy. But a Quiet Room is a very helpful start in the right direction.
Does your comm center have a quiet area? I would love to hear what yours looks like. How did you decide what to include? What works? What’s missing? Let us know in the comments!
About the author: Lisa Rymshaw, PsyD, is a former emergency telecommunicator. In addition to freelance writing and researching, she also collaborates with the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office to assist survivors of human trafficking and exploitation. You can contact Lisa Rymshaw on LinkedIn.
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