In my heart, once a Control Room Operator, always a Control Room Operator.

Sara McDougall spent years working within Thames Valley Police Control Room and shares some insights as to what she takes forward from her experience….

Although I now work for APD Communications as a Training Consultant, I used to work within the Control Room at Thames Valley Police. I have been there at 0400hrs, taking that critical call, feeling those emotions run through me whilst I try my best to help my caller.

In my heart, once a Control Room Operator, always a Control Room Operator!

I used to go home, after 10 or 12 hours shifts, thinking about the calls I’d taken that day, and thanking my lucky stars that my own life was ok. I didn’t have a husband that beat me. I didn’t have bills that were unpaid and I wasn’t avoiding the debt collectors at the door. My kids were not in with the “bad crowd” in the village, and didn’t cause me undue stress. Yes, the main feeling I took from my job in the control room, at the end of every shift, was one of relief that “my life was ok” and for that I was very grateful.

However, that didn’t stop me feeling awful for those people I spoke to, on 999 calls or on callbacks, whose life was not ok. Nobody really calls the police because they are having a good day. Everyone calls because something has happened that has had an impact on them, emotionally, physically, or both. These people called me for help. It was my job to do my best to help. But that can be an emotional drain on me too. How many burglaries are reported every day, extremely horrific and intrusive to the victim, but is it to the call handler? How many calls from a rape victim can you take before you start to be less empathetic to them? Do we really carry forward that care of duty to those most in need, at the lowest point in their lives? I think we should. If we no longer care enough to be emotionally moved by their plight, should we be still doing the job?

Nobody really calls the police because they are having a good day. Everyone calls because something has happened that has had an impact on them, emotionally, physically, or both. These people called me for help

However, this all comes at a cost. By being empathetic to our individual callers, for understanding their stresses, hurt and concerns, we consistently drain our own mental and emotional reserves. We give a little bit of ourselves to each and every caller, and gradually, over time, we begin to suffer from what is commonly known as “empathy fatigue”. This is when we can go through the motions of caring/showing empathy, but in reality, we are closing ourselves off to the real effects in order to just “protect ourselves”. In my opinion, this is one of the main causes stress within the control rooms as we are not dealing with our own emotions in the correct manner, but rather storing up problems that will, ultimately, escalate to a level where we, ourselves, are in a mental health crisis. Empathy, when expressed honestly, is good for the caller/victim, but is also good for the call handler. When it is suppressed, knowingly or not, the victim feels unsupported (which is never good, nor the intention) and the call handler stores up additional problems that will eventually reach the surface, perhaps at crisis point.

One of my own colleagues, from a few years ago, committed suicide. In a control room of 150 people, he couldn’t find a single person to speak to about his own stresses and concerns. He killed himself, however, on a day when his own shift was not on duty, so as to not cause any undue hurt/stress to his closest colleagues! No-one within that room saw or recognised the strain he was obviously under. Do I feel guilty for that? Absolutely. Could I have done better? Absolutely. Will I try in the future? Absolutely. Will it happen again, in another control room? Absolutely.

We must take care of our own. If we don’t, how can we expect our people to try and help others, when they are at their most vulnerable. MIND is a fantastic charity, promoting mental health awareness within the Emergency Services, and not before time, in my opinion. To protect, we must support our own first. Otherwise, the battle is lost. And we need to act now! Too many control room staff are already suffering under the strains of dealing with the emotional impact of their jobs. Time to reflect on difficult jobs is restricted, due to the increased demand on the service – increased call numbers, compounded by reduced staffing numbers. There is little to no time now between 999 calls – time where you used to reflect on the call, deal with your own emotional response to it. Now, it’s on to the next traumatic call almost immediately. Demand must be answered, quite rightly, but not at the expense of these wonderful control room staff, doing their utmost to help each and every caller to the best of their ability. To care for others, we must care for our own first.

Thank you Sara – once an #UnsungHero always an #UnsungHero.

Share your story like Sara at hello@controlroomweek.co.uk