TELECOM Digest OnLine - Sorted: Work is Grueling at FEMA Call Center

Work is Grueling at FEMA Call Center

Sheila Flynn (
Tue, 1 Nov 2005 10:38:02 -0600

By SHEILA FLYNN, Associated Press Writer

Some hurricane victims tearfully call Evelyn Simmons from motel rooms,
out of money and hope, begging for any kind of help she can provide
from the federal call center where she works.

Some angrily demand quicker assistance and less bureaucracy. Some have
even told Simmons' colleagues they're considering suicide.

"They're helpless, and you can't get to them," she said.

The hopelessness lingers for Simmons, 57, and her co-workers at the
Federal Emergency Management Agency center long after the callers hang

The already stressful job has became even more grueling in recent
months as hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma smashed into the country
in an eight-week span. As many as 73,000 calls could come in on any
given day at the four call centers FEMA has set up.

The call centers usually work round-the-clock shifts during disasters,
helping to temporarily house people and assist with aid
applications. But those crisis hours are normally short-lived, as
victims return to their homes to patch up damaged property and lives,
said applicant services manager Phyllis Paton.

This time there's been no let up. Katrina hit on Aug. 29, displacing
an estimated 1.5 million and causing more than $34 billion in
damage. As call center operators struggled to assist those evacuees,
Hurricane Rita roared ashore on Sept. 24 -- sparking an exodus of
approximately 3 million more people.

"I've never seen anything like it," said Paton, who has worked for
FEMA since 1983. "This disaster's very, very strange, because
normally, the disaster occurs, then they go back."

Many FEMA workers had been working 12-hour shifts, 12 days in a row,
when Wilma hit Florida on Oct. 24.

"When they saw Wilma coming, it was heartbreaking," Paton said. "They
were begging for two days in a row off before they had to kick it up
again. The stress level out here is unbelievable."

The Denton center's 1,261 workers now are breaking up their time among
three eight-hour shifts each day. FEMA tries to give employees time
off after six days worked, Paton said. Calls are handled by 350
workers on each shift, and the center has hired a temp agency to fill
empty chairs.

The limited time off and excessive hours have taken their toll.

Simmons said she didn't even have enough time to see her 19-year-old
granddaughter before she shipped out to Iraq with the Army.

"That kind of got next to me," said Simmons, who has worked at the
FEMA center for 13 years.

Paton said she's also seen the hurricanes' effect on her family. Her
husband is calling himself a "disaster widower," and her grandson has
become "grumpy" and withdrawn in her absence.

There's been plenty of stress at the office too. Hurricane evacuees --
more than 250,000 of whom relocated to Texas -- have shown up at the
building's gate, demanding help.

Paton said particularly dramatic calls during the storms have prompted
outbursts of emotion on the floor, with callers "screaming and my
folks screaming, and everybody's crying."

Stress counselors are available on each shift, and workers are also
entitled to six free counseling sessions. There is no way to record
how many take advantage of the offer because the sessions are
anonymous, Paton said.

But those counselors may not be enough, said Dr. Alan LaGrone,
associate professor of psychiatry at University of Texas Southwestern
Medical Center. With such intense exposure to workplace stress, the
FEMA employees could develop "a secondary trauma themselves from
listening to traumatic stories all day," he said.

Such an occurrence is usually seen in therapists dealing with war-torn
or horrified communities, but LaGrone said the prolonged drama of the
hurricanes could engender the condition in call operators.

"My hypothesis is that people from a call center may develop something
similar to that, partly exacerbated by the fact that they may feel
powerless to help," he said.

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Copyright 2005 The Associated Press.

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