9-1-1 dispatchers take a barrage of calls including fires, medical emergencies, auto accidents, and other life-threatening issues. One call quickly follows another. At the end of a shift it’s hard for dispatchers to ascertain which of the calls they took was the most tragic. 9-1-1 dispatchers leave the station after a shift, but the sounds and thoughts of the emergency calls follow them out the door and haunt them in their dreams later at night—if they can sleep at all.
9-1-1 Dispatchers Get Top Ranking as One of the Most Stressful Occupations
Researcher, Laurence Shatkin, Ph.D., compared the stress levels of 747 occupations as categorized by the U.S. Department of Labor. Dr. Shatkin measured the stress tolerance for each job including the frequency of how often workers face high-stress situations. His research also looked at the consequences of on-the-job errors and the pressure of time constraints. Dr. Laurence gave 9-1-1 dispatchers a stress tolerance of 98.5, a consequence of error score of 86, and a time pressure score of 68.3, all of which are very high scores.
9-1-1 Dispatchers are the “First Responders”
Being an emergency dispatcher requires many skills. Many of the calls aren’t true emergencies, and dispatchers need to handle them just as professionally as the more tragic calls. Regardless of the type of call, they have to be able to answer calls promptly, assess the situation, and make a fast determination about which department to send out to respond most appropriately to the caller’s situation.
Through it all, they must maintain a calming presence and stay on the line until help arrives. After their shift is over, many dispatchers play the calls over in their mind wondering if they made the best decisions and if the people on the other line received help in time.
Their decisions impact the lives of those they serve in many ways. If they don’t show enough compassion to a rape victim, the person could shut down and not be willing to report the incident. If they get an address wrong, even unintentionally, someone could die. A dispatcher’s words are especially important when speaking with children.
Sometimes dispatchers learn the outcome of the call. Sometimes they see it on the evening news. And sometimes they never know at all. Wondering about the caller’s safety causes them additional stress.
After a tragic car accident, house fire, or other emergency, the news teams arrive on the scene eager to get an interview with the police or fire chief. Updating the community about emergency news assures people living in communities that they are safe and the emergency is under control. We laud the police officers and firefighters and they are certainly heroes in their own right. Rarely, does a reporter seek out a 9-1-1 dispatcher who worked so diligently behind the scenes to keep the caller calm and monitor the police and fire departments until they arrived on the scene. 9-1-1 dispatchers are truly the “first responders;” yet they are the unsung heroes.
Misperceptions About the Level of Stress on 9-1-1 Dispatchers
Many 9-1-1 dispatchers get discouraged and frustrated when others attempt to minimize the stress that their jobs place on them, especially when it comes from others who work in the field as first responders. Other first responders, family members and friends often remark that the stress of being a dispatcher can’t really be “that bad.” After all, it’s not like dispatchers ever see dismembered bodies or terrified children. They don’t smell the billowing smoke of a fire or watch the wreckage of an accident being pulled from the scene.
It’s true that dispatchers don’t directly partake in the action of stabilizing and clearing an emergency scene, but they are no less affected by the stress of the event than any other first responder. The sounds of screaming children, desperate cries for help, sirens, and commotion linger in their hearts and in their minds long after the call has ended.
When the scene is under control, the 9-1-1 dispatcher drops off the line and gets overshadowed by the men and women in uniform working to manage the scene. Misguided comments that diminish their role as first responders cause many emergency dispatchers to suffer in silence or turn to drugs or alcohol to dull the sensations and deal with stressful feelings.
Stress and PTSD Lead to Addictions in 9-1-1 Dispatchers
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a psychiatric disorder that occurs when someone experiences or witnesses a traumatic even like a natural disaster, serious accident, rape, personal assault, or act of war.
PTSD can occur even when the exposure to stress is indirect, as it is in the case of 9-1-1 dispatchers.
While we recognize PTSD as “shell shock” in our nation’s veterans, large percentages of first responders also acquire PTSD as a result of job stress.
PTSD can cause intense thoughts and feelings about the traumatic event that last long after the event is over. In the case of first responders, multiple and chronic traumatic events cause PTSD. Common symptoms are flashbacks and nightmares, emotional detachment, and isolation. Sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and touch sensations can retrigger feelings of the traumatic event.
How to Help a Fellow Dispatcher Dealing with Addictions Resulting from PTSD
The best way to help one of your colleagues that turns to drugs or alcohol to deal with the stress of the job is to offer help and support. Do some research about addiction programs in the area. Gently approach the subject and offer to share the information you discovered. Extend an offer to accompany your co-worker to the addiction recovery center to support them taking the courageous step towards getting help.
Many dispatch stations are finding it helpful to take a proactive approach to combat stress and PTSD on the front end. The National Emergency Number Association encourages 911 call centers to create a course of at least 8 hours that helps dispatchers recognize and manage the effects of stress. It also helps to initiate a protocol that allows dispatchers some time to destress after serious calls. Still another trending idea is to have someone in the station place a de-briefing call so they can let others in the station know the outcome of the tragic situation. Knowing the outcome eliminates excessive worry and can alleviate some of the stress.
Self-Care for Dispatchers is an Emergency
Burnout causes high turnover in the field of emergency dispatch. Having experienced emergency dispatchers can so often mean the difference between life and death. It’s important to recognize that the stress levels of emergency dispatchers equal those of their fellow first responders. In order for our 9-1-1 dispatchers to care for others in the community, they need to be the first-responders of caring for themselves.
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