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UCF Study Examines First Responder Stress and Support Needs

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Anastasia Miller understands the stress experienced by first responders, having worked as an emergency medical technician and firefighter before enrolling in the public affairs doctoral program at UCF.

In fact these work experiences led her to study support strategies and burnout among first responders as her dissertation research, which she will defend next month.

Her research is the first scientific study of its kind in Florida, and it confirmed what she expected.

"The four types of first responders - law enforcement personnel, firefighters, dispatchers and emergency medical service providers - cannot be treated the same," Miller said. "They have different needs and different support requirements, and they display stress differently."

Some first responders experience secondary traumatic stress, a subset of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, she said. They may have very similar symptoms to PTSD, but the symptoms result from witnessing a traumatic event or helping a victim overcome an event rather than being a direct victim of an event.

First responders also may experience job burnout or diminished satisfaction from helping others on the job, also known as compassion fatigue.

Anastasia MillerTo examine the prevalence of secondary traumatic stress, burnout and compassion fatigue among first responders, Miller (left) sent anonymous surveys to all first responders employed by agencies in the state. She received and analyzed more than 1,500 survey responses.

Miller found that 60 percent of first responders displayed low levels of secondary traumatic stress, 39 percent displayed moderate levels and 1 percent displayed high levels.

"Dispatchers and EMS personnel were the most likely to experience high levels of secondary traumatic stress," she said. "In particular those who worked longer in the field and those who worked in another first responder field at the same time, such as an EMT also working as a firefighter, had higher levels of secondary traumatic stress."

Miller's inclusion of dispatchers in the analysis is unique, according to lead faculty adviser Lynn Unruh, professor of health management and informatics.

"Dispatchers are the less visible side of public safety," Unruh said.

Miller's study also showed that the use and effectiveness of support strategies for first responders vary widely among agencies.

For example, some agencies emphasize the use of Critical Incident Stress Debriefing while others use alternative methods of crisis intervention, and these activities may be mandatory or optional. And some agencies encourage informal debriefing, or talking to one another, while others discourage it, either explicitly or implicitly through behaviors that support a macho or limited-expression culture, she said.

Miller found that all types of first responders benefit from stress management training. However, other types of support were helpful to some but not others.

Speaking to coworkers about incidents that bother them reduced burnout among firefighters and dispatchers but not law enforcement personnel and EMS providers. Participating in formal debriefing activities reduced burnout among law enforcement personnel but not firefighters, dispatchers and EMS providers. And participating in mental health services offered by employers reduced compassion fatigue among firefighters, but not law enforcement personnel, dispatchers and EMS providers.

"We don't know much about how to reduce stress and burnout among public safety personnel or how to help them maintain compassion in the face of ongoing stress," Unruh said. "Understanding that debriefing and coworker support are helpful to some but not all types of personnel is important for knowing what programs to implement."

Robyne Stevenson, interim director of UCF's Doctoral Program in Public Affairs, said it's not unusual for a former practitioner turned doctoral student like Miller to develop dissertation research related to professional expertise.

"Our students frequently bring a wealth of related real-world experiences that inform their studies and research," Stevenson said.

Miller would like to continue her research on first responders at a university or government agency after successfully defending her dissertation.

"There's been very little research on first responders, and virtually none on dispatchers," Miller said. "I hope this will get the conversation going to help all of them."

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