On Thursday March 5, 2020 dr. Lisa van Reemst defended her PhD thesis titled: Emergency Responders at Risk. This research involved an empirical analysis of the relationship between emergency responders’ characteristics and their exposure to aggression by citizens. We recently interviewed her to inquire about the focus and results of her PhD studies. You can read about it below.

Can you tell us a bit about what you researched, and why?

I started working as a junior researcher on a research project about violence perpetuated against the police, which was financed by Politie en Wetenschap (Police and Science). This was an ideal position for me, because it gave me the possibility to discover whether I enjoyed conducting research as a job upon graduating. (By the way, the answer was yes!) Working on research about this topic actually further increased my interest in studying it. It is one of the main reasons why I wrote a research proposal with the intention to write a dissertation on the topic of violence perpetuated against the police, and other first responders.

Emergency responders (police officers, firefighters and emergency medical workers) are frequently confronted with aggression while executing their jobs. This can have severe consequences for them, both personally and at work. Therefore, I think it is really important that we as researchers seek insight into aggression against emergency responders (or others dealing with aggression in the workplace), so that we can help to decrease future aggression, or improve how we, as society respond to it.

The focus in my dissertation has been on characteristics of the emergency responder themselves. Why I’m interested in that specific aspect probably relates to having obtained a Masters in Psychology. I have always been interested in ‘the individual’. Additionally, previous studies have shown that some emergency responders are less likely to be confronted with aggression than other emergency responders. Knowing what differences in characteristics they have can help inform us on policy measures, for example. Therefore, in my PhD research I studied the relationship between characteristics of emergency responders, such as empathy and dominance, versus their exposure to aggression by citizens while on the job.

Briefly summarized, what are the main research methods you employed during your PhD studies?

To research this topic, I conducted longitudinal, quantitative research by means of administering multiple questionnaires; one amongst police officers only, and one amongst police officers, firefighters and paramedics. In addition, I conducted a secondary analysis of an existing dataset based on questionnaires that were already administered. Lastly, I also conducted interviews with emergency responders and people working at their organisations. To sum it up you could say I conducted multi-methods research to study this topic.

In a couple of sentences, can you tell us something about the main findings and conclusions of your research?

Characteristics of emergency responders are related to their exposure to workplace aggression, but to a limited extent. For example, employees with less negative affect and ‘moderate’ dominance traits (instead of low or high) experience less aggression. It was also found that the relationship between characteristics and exposure to aggression can occur in both directions: personal characteristics of employees can predict whether they are exposed to aggression later on, and being exposed to aggression can predict the development of certain personal characteristics.

An important finding is that exposure to aggression varies greatly between the three occupational groups: police officers experience most and firefighters experience least aggression. Also, the relationship with personal characteristics of employees versus exposure to aggression varies between occupational groups. For example, personal characteristics were hardly related to exposure to aggression amongst firefighters.

In what way do these findings contribute to the academic community?

The findings provide information on three important gaps in the literature. Firstly, most research on exposure to workplace aggression focuses on situational aspects, such as how often employees work with citizens or clients, instead of personal characteristics. Secondly, most research is cross-sectional, measuring characteristics and exposure to aggression at one point in time, and therefore provide limited information on the direction of the relationship. Thirdly, previous research often either focuses on one occupational group, or studies multiple occupational groups, without distinguishing between these groups. My dissertation thus contributed by providing insight in personal (psychological) characteristics of emergency responders, in the direction of the relationship, and in differences between occupational groups.

How do these conclusions contribute to society, or practitioners in your field of study?

I think that describing a phenomenon, including the context, numbers and relationships, is already very relevant for society, and more specifically for people who work on this topic at emergency response organisations. The dissertation research also provides suggestions for training, aftercare and monitoring employees in organisations. For example, one of the suggestions listed is to (continue to) invest in situational measures, such as, interventions for offenders and protective tools, as situational characteristics seem to explain variations in exposure to aggression more than psychological characteristics.

What is next for you in your career? Will you stay in the academic community or pursue a different path?

Currently, I work as an Assistant Professor at the department of Criminology at the Erasmus School of Law, and as a postdoctoral researcher at the Netherlands Institute for the Study of Crime and Law Enforcement (NSCR). So, yes, I’ll be staying in the academic community. Currently, I’m working on a research project on police intervention in conflicts between citizens, using CCTV footage from Amsterdam. In addition, I’m also busy with teaching and coordinating courses.

Last question…. If you could pass one word of advice to people who are doing a PhD or wish to conduct a PhD, what would that be?

Take the opportunities you get and think you’ll enjoy. Try to become a part of the academic community, for example by attending conferences, if you want to. If you want to be involved in side projects or teaching, do so (of course, after discussing it with your supervisor)! Surround yourself with people that you have fun with and can go to when you’re having a bad day – which will probably occur, because conducting PhD research is a long project, both during, and outside of work.

If you want to read more about this research click here to download the full dissertation

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