The inherent nature of emergency calls places many first responders at risk of harm, injury, or death. While emergency dispatchers don’t directly get involved at the scene of an emergency, they are exposed to many of the same mental and emotional traumas that first responders experience first-hand. As a result, telecommunicators are at a strong risk for occupational stress. Chronic stress on the job often causes mental health issues like anxiety, depression, and PTSD in emergency dispatchers.
In addition to working at a high-stress job, 911 dispatchers have a sedentary position at work, where they must sit for the entire shift. For many dispatchers, the combination of high stress, unhealthy eating habits, and a sedentary lifestyle are a recipe for obesity, heart problems, depression, and other health problems.
An Alarming Study of Emergency Dispatchers and Weight
In 2015, researchers performed a study of 911 dispatchers about job-related issues that contribute to obesity. The study showed that 82% of emergency dispatchers reported that their body mass index (BMI) fell into the overweight or obese category.
BMI is a simple index that classifies weight according to a weight-to-height ratio. To get the BMI, divide a person’s weight by the square of his height.
In addition to the high percentage of dispatchers that were obese or overweight, the study also revealed some additional alarming information. 911 dispatchers reported an average of 17 health complaints in a month. Among their complaints were distress, dissociation, emotional dysregulation, and psychological inflexibility. Chronic and serious mental distress can cause dispatchers to resort to drugs or alcohol abuse. Those who don’t fall victim to substance abuse may live with serious cases of PTSD, depression, anxiety, or hypervigilance.
Predictors of Obesity and Physical Health Issues Among 911 Dispatchers
Emergency dispatchers have only to look around their workstations to know that their colleagues are also struggling with their mental stability, overall health, and weight. Several different things contribute to the propensity for dispatchers to gain weight.
The 24/7 nature of emergency dispatching means that emergency responders have non-standard schedules. They are often subject to rotating shifts and mandatory overtime to make sure that the emergency call center is appropriately staffed at all times.
Not having a regular work schedule causes emergency dispatchers to have enough breaks in their sleep routines that it becomes difficult to get to sleep. Sporadic sleep schedules throw the body’s natural body rhythms off.
Irregular sleep and eating habits can also cause metabolic syndrome. A combined set of conditions including high blood pressure, increased blood sugar, abnormal cholesterol or triglyceride levels, and body fat around the waist causes metabolic syndrome. The disorder increases the risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.
Stress Eating Contributes to Weight Gain
Science can help us better understand why emergency dispatchers are hungry all the time and tend to succumb to poor eating habits.
While emergency dispatchers are quickly and efficiently responding to emergency calls, unbeknown to anyone, the insides of their bodies become a bustling center of activity. The stress of traumatic calls sends a signal to the adrenal glands to start producing cortisol. Cortisol sends a signal to other bodily systems telling them that it needs more food to produce energy to respond to the stress. Have you noticed that many people find it helpful to eat delicious food when they’re trying to calm themselves down? It actually works. That’s why we call it “comfort food.”
When the stressful situation is over, the cortisol levels usually drop, helping people feel less hungry and better able to cope on their own. However, emergency dispatchers don’t always get a break in their stress levels in between calls. In fact, they may not get a chance to destress throughout the entire shift. The release of cortisol can make them feel like they’re hungry all the time.
You might be surprised to learn that stress negatively affects the types of foods that emergency dispatchers tend to crave. Studies have shown that distress causes people to crave foods that are high in fat, sugar, or both. These are those comfort foods mentioned earlier. Eating comfort food is a way for telecommunicators to self-medicate their emotions because it automatically triggers the brain to calm down. Comfort eating sets up an internal reward pathway, creating a habit that dispatchers repeat over and over again. In no time, extra pounds begin to creep on.
Working in an emergency call station doesn’t always allow dispatchers to take regular breaks, if they get any at all. They have to grab a bite when they can, which means that they often take a few bites here and there right at their workstations. Irregular breaks and the fast pace of the calls often makes it easy for dispatchers to lose track of how much food they are consuming.
Strategies for Emergency Dispatchers to Improve Their Eating Habits and Health
It sounds simplistic, but the two best strategies to combat obesity for emergency dispatchers is to make better food choices and start moving.
It helps if dispatchers plan their food out for the day and bring it into work from home, including healthy snacks. This way they won’t be tempted to overeat. Fast food chains now offer many healthier choices. Check the calorie count on the menu before ordering. Try to limit the amount of fats and sugars in your meals and snacks. When possible, try to eat in a breakroom and leave the stress at the workstation.
Make a point to get moving on and off the job. Try to get up and move around in between calls. Do some stepping in place, stretching, yoga, or other light exercise that doesn’t take up too much room. Park your car a distance from the station entrance and get in some extra walking.
Schedule time in your day outside of work to get some exercise in. Check out the local gym and fitness options in your community. Make fitness a family affair. Ask your spouse, children, or friends to join you on a walk or hike. Join a club that forces you to get out and spend some time in nature. Many communities have running or walking clubs. Choose a vacation that gives you opportunities for active fun like swimming and volleyball.
Take care of your mental health too. See a therapist or counselor to help you process some of the traumatic experiences that you face on the job.
Keeping pounds away can be challenging for many emergency dispatchers. Knowing the factors that lead to obesity helps to form a plan to combat it. It’s never too late to start eating healthier and begin an exercise routine. Our bodies can reverse many of the effects of physical problems that develop when we commit to the routine of a healthier lifestyle.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Lamplugh is a fourth-generation firefighter and former captain with the Lower Chichester (PA) Fire Company. He was the Chief Marketing Officer of 360 Wellness Inc/Premier Wellness Solutions and currently managing business development with Institute for Responder Wellness and Deer Hollow Recovery.. Lamplugh is also nationally recognized in Crisis Stress Intervention through the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress. Lamplugh hosts his own talk show called “Firefighter Wellness Radio” with Fire Engineering. He has helped thousands of firefighters, police officers, veterans, EMS personnel, and civilians nationwide find help for addiction, alcoholism, PTSD, and mental health support. Mark has been chosen as one of the Board of Directors at One World For Life (To head up Communication and the Health & Safety section). He can be reached for comment firstname.lastname@example.org