Why emotional intelligence matters in the emergency communications center

The founder of The Healthy Dispatcher explains why understanding your emotions, and those of others, is so valuable in the 911 call center

As the COVID-19 pandemic rages across our communities, there's no denying that we are navigating one of the most challenging periods of our lifetimes. Thankfully, 911 dispatchers are playing an integral role in helping us safely weather this storm

But while the job of an emergency communications professional is demanding on even the best of days, COVID-19 is pushing many call centers to the breaking point. That's why we believe the advice that follows, from The Healthy Dispatcher's own Adam Timm, is especially important today. 

The work of emergency communications personnel is emotionally charged. Whether it’s working with callers, field units or fellow coworkers, the emotional dimension is often the most individually impactful, yet also the most overlooked.

In fact, a career in public safety necessarily causes each of us to be less empathetic and less perceptive when it comes to understanding this hidden side. Working with people who are experiencing traumatic situations, as an emergency communications professional does every day, changes one’s perceptions of the world, and can even make you “feel dead inside,” as one 9-1-1 dispatcher succinctly put it. Coined “emotional numbing,” it’s the natural consequence of working in this helping profession.

We’re required to put some emotional distance between ourselves and the nature of the work, if we are to survive. And over time, this distance become larger, more pronounced, and automatic.

Emotional intelligence can build trust and loyalty in the 911 call center. Courtesy/Twitter
Emotional intelligence can build trust and loyalty in the 911 call center. Courtesy/Twitter

As a coping strategy, there’s nothing inherently wrong with intentionally distancing oneself from the chaos
on the other end of the line. When this distancing unintentionally takes over, however, it prevents us from being effective, both at work and at home.

Noting where you find yourself in this regard can help mitigate the harmful effects of stress, enhance your level of customer service, and improve the likelihood you’ll be able to remain in a profession you love.

What is emotional intelligence?

The ability to understand the effects on the job from the perspective of one’s emotions is called emotional intelligence (EQ).

In their book, "Emotional Intelligence 2.0," Drs. Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves provide a definition of the concept that is twofold:

  1. EQ is the ability to recognize the emotions within yourself and others;
  2. Further, EQ is the ability to use this awareness to manage your behavior and relationships.

EQ is a rather intangible “something” in each of us. It affects how we manage behavior, navigate social complexities, and make personal decisions that achieve positive results.

Daniel Goleman, who wrote the first book coining the term, puts it succinctly:

Some of the reasons [why emotional intelligence is important] are patently obvious — imagine the consequences for a working group [in the comm center, for example] when someone is unable to keep from exploding in anger or has no sensitivity about what the people around him are feeling.”

When we’re upset, we make bad decisions and say things we later regret — and in this industry, it’s sometimes on a recorded line. Said in another way: Stress makes us dumb, and without understanding its impact on our emotional makeup, life for ourselves and our coworkers can be made even more challenging.

While the popular literature is not based on nor directed solely at emergency communications centers, it’s
obvious, based on the definition offered above, why EQ is so important for our industry. Based on my research, emotional intelligence empowers line personnel to navigate the challenging work with greater ease, and allows leaders to adeptly work with the people side of things to improve culture, morale, and retention as a result.

Over the past few years, I’ve had the honor of learning from a collection of inspirational leaders at 9-1-1 communications centers across the United States. These “People Driven Leaders,” as I’ve coined them, have several key characteristics in common, despite being from various walks of life, different corners of the country, and very different professional backgrounds.

One of these common characteristics is a keen understanding of the emotional dimension of their work. Every one of these leaders is highly emotionally intelligent. Aside from this, People Driven Leaders set a standard of emotional intelligence for their centers, and thereby encourage their teams’ EQ in the process.

The wonderful thing about EQ is that it can be learned. It’s an edge we can all can sharpen. If you’d like to make a bigger positive impact at your center, and in the lives of those you interact with on a daily basis, begin today practicing the following five EQ improvement techniques, and watch your effectiveness take a turn for the better:

#1 Observe the ripple effect from your emotions

When you're frustrated or having a bad day, how does it affect the way you interact? Do you notice you’re less patient with coworkers? Do you avoid difficult conversations? Being in a leadership role, your actions
and words are amplified while you work with others. One negative interaction can spread your frustration like wildfire.

#2 Know who or what pushes your buttons

We all have hot buttons. Being aware of them so you can work with them, or avoid them altogether, will prevent you from reacting and saying something you’ll later regret. When emotions take control, it’s much more difficult to respond productively.

#3 Breathe right

The breath is always with us, beckoning us back to the present moment. The problem is, most don’t breathe properly, only taking tiny sips of air into the upper chest. Try a couple of deep breaths into the lower belly right now, and notice how you instantly feel more relaxed.

#4 Practice the art of listening

What’s your listening style? Are you merely waiting for the other person to shut up so you can reply? Or are you actively engaged in the exchange? Notice your thoughts, body language and how you respond the next time you’re speaking to someone.

#5 Explain your decisions, don’t just make them

When your employees feel left in the dark, the rumor mill kicks into high gear. Transparency and openness, on the other hand, make people feel like they are trusted, respected, and connected to the center’s larger purpose.

In time, these behaviors will further your ability to build trust and loyalty, even in the most demanding situations. If you decide to take measures to make improvements in this area, it doesn’t matter where in the organization you work — line level, instructor, supervisor or
manager — you are a leader.


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