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Next Generation 911: More Connection, More Stress?

Next Generation 911 will require 911 call-takers to attend to a broad range of communication modalities. NWCPHP researchers are studying what effects Next Generation 911 might have on the health of 911 call-takers.

Next Generation 911 will require 911 call-takers to attend to a broad range of communication modalities. NWCPHP researchers are studying what effects Next Generation 911 might have on the health of 911 call-takers.

February 20, 2014

Technology allows us to communicate in multiple ways. We call, e-mail, text, or send images to one another with ease at any hour of the day. Soon, most of us will also be able to communicate with 911 call-takers in the same ways we connect with friends and family. Called “Next Generation 911,” this national initiative will upgrade 911 service to include e-mail, Skype, instant messaging, SMS, streaming video, photo uploads, and automatic crash notifications.

While an expanded range of options for connecting with 911 personnel is something that most consumers would welcome, it is unclear what effect Next Generation 911 will have on 911 call-takers. As it is, each call-taker must handle thousands of calls a year. A single call may require the call-taker to refer to five or six computer screens. Then too, some of the situations that call-takers deal with are extreme: massive heart attacks, murders, and explosions. Call-takers feel responsibility not only for the victims of emergencies, but also for the first responders involved. Being a 911 call-taker is already a stressful job. What will happen when call-takers must respond to multiple new forms of communication?

For example, 911 call-takers may be sent photos of grisly injuries or videos of traffic fatalities. If they must respond by text to callers, call-takers are limited in how much space they can use when sending instructions for clearing a blocked airway or administering CPR. Could these and other innovations of 911 service overwhelm call center employees?

NWCPHP researcher Hendrika Meischke, PhD, MPH, says, “It is increasingly important to study stress and stress reduction in this workforce to ensure that Next Generation 911 can be implemented without impeding services to the public or increasing the potential for harm to 911 call-takers. Since they already experience a great deal of stress, we are eager to discover what can be done to prevent illness and burnout in 911 call-takers, as Next Generation 911 becomes standard practice.”

Meischke and fellow researchers Ian Painter, PhD, MSc, Janet Baseman, PhD, MPH, and Debra Revere, MLIS, MA, have conducted preliminary research at eight call centers in King County, Washington. Employees at these centers completed surveys that will help researchers get a sense of baseline stress level before implementation of Next Generation 911. The survey also asked about mindfulness practices, with a view toward future research on evidence-based ways in which 911 call-takers can reduce job stress.

Meischke says, “This research will directly benefit the health of communities. Call-takers at 911 call centers are often the initial first responders. Their ability to manage their stress and respond well to difficult calls can mean the difference between life and death.”

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