ABOVE: Stacy Jones is among the 911 dispatchers at SERESA who organized a peer support group to help those who answer emergency calls deal with the weight of their responsibilities.

ABOVE: Stacy Jones is among the 911 dispatchers at SERESA who organized a peer support group to help those who answer emergency calls deal with the weight of their responsibilities.

Photo provided by Cherie Bartram

SERESA offers 911 dispatchers help for pressures of the job

By: Brendan Losinski | Roseville - Eastpointe Eastsider | Published November 6, 2020


ROSEVILLE — When people call 911, they usually don’t think much about the person on the other end of the line — after all, callers have other things on their minds. But the voice answering the phone can often hold life and death in their hands.

That kind of responsibility can weigh on people who go in and walk people through what are sometimes the worst days of their lives. The dispatchers at the South East Regional Emergency Services Authority know that experience all too well.

“While we’re not physically on scene, we’re mentally on scene talking to people on the worst day of their lives and hearing the screams and the yells and providing the lifesaving advice over the phone, and we don’t get to see how things are resolved, and we just have to move on to the next call,” said SERESA Executive Director Cherie Bartram. “This can build up over the years.”

That is why SERESA dispatchers started a new program to help each other manage the stress and anxiety that comes with the job.

“What we’ve come up with is a peer support group, which is special for 911 telecommunicators,” said SERESA Dispatcher Stacy Jones. “It helps with work-life balance and managing stress that is specific to our 911 profession. It deals with the calls we take, the long hours, the way we can’t step away or get tough calls back-to-back-to-back.”

John Jannette, the SERESA center supervisor and the person in charge of the support program, said they have seen firsthand how deep the toll of the job can be.

“We saw the struggles our dispatchers have had to overcome,” he said. “They were there for our first responders and our citizens, but they couldn’t always be there for themselves. My niece was a Macomb County dispatcher, and she was killed, and Stacy actually went over there and helped talk to the Macomb County dispatchers, and that really showed us we needed something for ourselves.”

The program began in January. The key to the program is peer support.

“The most important part is that it has to be confidential, so we have set up tokens for each dispatcher,” said Jannette. “So each dispatcher is given a token with a number to identify them. At any time they want to reach out to a peer supporter, they can just set that token down to that peer supporter and they will know who is asking for help. We also have a peer support group that meets regularly. It’s our support, encouragement, acknowledgement and leadership team.”

He added that ensuring confidentiality was an important part of the program, since there can be a stigma when asking for help.

“There’s a stigma out there that reaching out for help is a sign of weakness, so we wanted to give them a way to ask for help with only the two of them knowing they are the one asking for help,” Jannette said. “They can meet in the building or off-site.”

“We recognize that this isn’t a replacement for any clinical assistance, but it makes it easier on people to have that bridge to mental health more available and the day-to-day experience easier,” added Jones. “We can refer people to resources like mental health professionals and remove that stigma of reaching out for help.”

They also said that having a support system in place is all the more important now that there are additional stress factors, such as COVID-19.

“The virus has affected things. We’ve done our peer meetings on Zoom lately, but it’s been good so far,” remarked Jones. “One of the important things is that there’s no better time than now for peer support. We’re facing COVID as a dispatch center; we’re facing issues in law enforcement. There’s a lot going on.”

Bartram said that being able to talk to other dispatchers is crucial.

“Sometimes you can’t talk to anyone but a peer,” she said. “We deal with a lot of confidential information, so when you talk to another dispatcher, you can share anything because you can’t talk about certain things with other people — not even family members.”

She went on to say that so far the program has been very successful and she believes it’s making a difference in the morale and mental health of SERESA’s dispatchers.

“Historically, when I started in 911 30 years ago, dispatchers were looked at as kind of a clerical position and no one gave any thought to how we were interacting with callers or how we were seeing the scene described to us,” Bartram said. “How we handle it has changed, and John and Stacy have done a great job at taking a concept and making it into a great program with a great team for our staff.”

For more information on SERESA or to contact it for nonemergencies, call (586) 777-6700 or go to seresa.org.