Addressing emergency service mental health issues through technology

Words: Nick Chorley, Director, EMEA Public Safety & Security, Hexagon’s Safety, Infrastructure & Geospatial division

Emergency response is a high stress occupation. Lives are often at stake, and correct decision-making in fast moving scenarios often determines the success of outcomes. Given the trauma this can entail, mental health is an increasing concern amid emergency response workers.

Recent research1 from King’s College London, The Royal Foundation, and the Open University, found that UK emergency responders may experience more mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder compared to the wider UK population. The study also found that a leading cause of stress was organisational – factors such as intense workloads, poor management, staff shortages and burnout.

This is an issue that spans the entire emergency response apparatus – from the call handlers and dispatchers in 999 centres to the police, fire, medical and other rescue workers on the ground. Call-takers and dispatchers in the control room are often regarded as peripheral to the traumatising event; however, it is they who communicate with agitated and distressed callers and who are the first point of contact while an ongoing crisis is unfolding. Underlining this fact, research2 points to control room staff suffering a similar rate of trauma and mental health problems as their colleagues who respond to the emergency in hand.

Fortunately, awareness around mental health and wellbeing for public safety workers is growing within agencies and the public. Organisations like BAPCO and the Mind Blue Light Programme are shedding light on the issue and providing information resources. Governments are stepping up their efforts, and even Prince William3 has highlighted the need to enhance support services for responders, while also creating a culture where people feel comfortable to talk about what they are going through.

Additionally, as technology has evolved, advancements have emerged for alleviating the stress placed on public safety personnel of all disciplines, with special emphasis on call centre staff.

The impacts of evolved technology

One of the most impactful ways technology can help combat the stress on personnel is through data analysis. Using analytics from routine operational data, such as call data from computer-aided dispatch (CAD) systems, 999 centre managers can derive insights to benefit frontline workers. For example, supervisors can review reports that allow them to monitor and balance the workloads of call-takers to ensure they are not working extended hours or to understand if staffing levels are misaligned with peak call times. This can help address the intense workloads that have been shown to deteriorate the mental health of workers.

To further the use of operational data and analytics, integrated artificial intelligence and machine learning offer new levels of assistive insights to dispatchers. Autonomous, background processes can quickly and effectively scan for similarities, anomalies, links and patterns across the entirety of calls coming into the comms centre. These capabilities act as a second set of eyes, reducing stress on both comms centre veterans and new employees still building their knowledge base. Another example is routing less traumatic coded jobs to new employees in their first weeks and, where possible, avoiding routing repeated traumatic jobs to the same dispatcher one after the other.

Mobile technologies can connect public safety data and applications with any internet-connected device, giving staff access from home or a temporary office during an emergency or disaster. This also allows field responders to self-serve many information requests and update information, thereby cutting the dispatcher workload and allowing units in the field to be informed on the go. Further, mobile applications facilitate open, real-time communication that allows for timely information about the scene to be relayed quickly, ultimately improving outcomes as the first responders will be better prepared for the specific nature of the call.

Total situational awareness

Adopting the use of live camera feeds provides call-takers and dispatchers with total situational awareness, enabling more informed decision-making. Additionally, many researchers believe seeing an event first-hand reduces mental stress as call-takers can see resolution of the situation without wondering what happened to the distressed caller or victim.

Some operational technologies, such as next-generation CAD solutions, can be configured so that staff are coordinated with and have immediate access to mental health resources following a traumatic event, for example one that might involve a fatality on the scene of an emergency. Having access to these resources immediately and conveniently is an additional step leaders can take to ensure the mental health of employees is cared for and stress is reduced as quickly as possible.

Towards a healthier future

Through their work, 999 professionals undergo mental health stressors far beyond what most of the public have to experience, which can lead to burnout, physical illness and trauma. While there is no way to entirely remove the stress of an emergency response role, it’s pivotal to take every opportunity to support the mental and emotional wellbeing of these essential workers.

Ensuring proper care of employees is the responsibility of agency leaders and comms centre managers, and modern tools can help mitigate pressures and instil confidence in decision-making. Though technological capabilities can contribute to the ongoing effort to protect the wellbeing of those who work to protect us, there’s still much work to be done.