Behavioral science researchers, and mental health professionals came together for a virtual conference on stress, resiliency, health, and wellness for emergency dispatchers.

By Ryan Dedmon and Dr. Lora Reed

The 911 Wellness Foundation recently hosted its first annual Virtual Research Conference.  Industry leading behavioral science researchers and mental health professionals were invited to make special presentations for an audience of emergency dispatchers, telecommunicators, and other 911 leaders and stakeholders.

Dr. Lora Reed, the Director of Research for 911WF, was primarily responsible for organizing the event.  Aside from her leadership role with 911WF, she is an Associate Professor in the Forbes School of Business and serves as the Program Chair for the BA in Human Resources Management.  Dr. Reed has been teaching undergraduate through doctoral levels and has provided consultation expertise to public-safety agencies for 20 years.  Dr. Reed and Dr. Alan Swank, an Assistant Professor in the Forbes School of Business, made a presentation on “The Servant-Led PSAP: Creating a Climate for Optimal Employee Wellness”.  Their presentation emphasized that employee wellness begins when leaders create a healthy environment at the organizational and leadership levels in all organizations.  Dr. Reed’s research has demonstrated this through a national study of 911 emergency communications centers (For more information, see  Her research was supported by a grant from the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership where she was named one of the first three Greenleaf Scholars for her work with 911 dispatchers.

“We’ve gone far too long knowing far too little about the ways that stress impacts our very first-responders (dispatchers) and our emergency communication centers”, said Jim Marshall, the Founder and Chairman of 911WF.  “By strategically advancing wellness research to identify stress-related health challenges among these highly valuable professionals we can boost their resilience, performance and retention.”

The conference was held through the website JoinMe, a platform that creates conferences through its innovative screen-sharing, audio-calling, and chatroom technology.  Attendees could see presentations, listen to speakers, and actively engage in discussions through their computer from the comfort of their home.

Dr. Michelle Lilly, an Associate Professor of Clinical Psychology at Northern Illinois University, made  a presentation on “Recent Evidence for Stress-related Health Problems in 911 Telecommunicators”.   Her research examines stress-related and trauma-related health in high risk populations. In the past 5 years, she has conducted a number of studies looking at mental and physical health in 9-1-1 telecommunicators.

Between Everyday Life and Bureaucracy: The Emotional Cost of 911 Dispatch” was presented by Phoenix Chi Wang, a Ph.D. candidate in the department of sociology at Harvard University.  For the last 3 years, Phoenix has conducted intense research at a local Public-Safety Answering Point (emergency communications center) in the New England area.  She is currently completing her dissertation with a focus on the work of 911 dispatchers, operation of emergency communication systems, coding processes in Computer-Aided-Dispatch and federal-to-local 911 policy structure.

Sara Gilman, MFT, is the Chief Mental Health Officer for 911WF.  She lectures internationally on the issues of mental toughness and resiliency for first-responders, PTSD and EMDR, addiction, and mental peak performance for athletes.  Outside of her role with 911WF, she is the CEO of Coherence Associates Inc., which specializes in the treatment of mental health and wellness utilizing a proactive and comprehensive approach to counseling, psychotherapy, and consulting.  She also provides professional consultation to public-safety peer support teams for critical incident debriefings.  She made a presentation on “Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy: Evidence Based Mental Health Treatment for the 911 Telecommunicator”.  911WF recommends EMDR as the treatment of choice for 911 professionals based on a combination of its outstanding evidence-base endorsement by the Department of Defense, and per the extensive clinical experience of 911WF board members in successfully treating PTSD using this treatment.

Captain Simon Hargrove from the New Orleans Police Department (LA) ended the conference by facilitating a “Roundtable Discussion” between the presenters, 911WF leaders, and conference attendees.  The discussion focused on, among other things, how NG911 might impact stress on dispatchers in the future.

“This virtual conference was a pivotal first step of the 911WF’s journey bringing together a broad base of 911 stakeholders and experts from other fields for this cause.  We’re delighted by its success”, added Marshall.