Over 240 million calls are made to 911 in the U.S. each year. For the Emergency Medical Dispatchers (EMD) that answer these calls, there are some serious mental and physical consequences.
Dispatchers spend their entire shifts dealing with people in the most panicked moments of their lives, and those people’s lives are dependent on how quickly and efficiently the dispatcher reacts.
EMDs dispatchers assist others in the form of firefighters, paramedics, or police first responders. They stay on the line with the caller until help arrives. As a result of the many hardships of the job, there is a national shortage of EMDs across Canada and the US.
Dispatching is Difficult
Being an Emergency Dispatcher is difficult for a multitude of reasons. Firstly, the job is incredibly intense and stressful; at any moment you could answer the phone to a panicked caller and your actions can alter the course of their lives.
Those that quit during the dispatcher training cite could not handle the “rapid pace of the job and the responsibility of having someone’s lives in their hands.” The hours are long and there is mandatory overtime; working during emergencies and on holidays.
Dispatchers are needed 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. In small towns, dispatchers must often take calls from people they know, neighbours, and friends.
Adding to the stress, dispatchers often never know the outcome of the calls they assist on. They can walk someone through performing CPR, and once the first responders show up, that is the end of their involvement.
They are our “behind the scenes hero’s,” they often don’t get the recognition or closure they deserve.
Emergency dispatchers are taught to control their emotions when taking a call, which can be psychologically draining. Even though the dispatcher may not physically be on the spot of the incident does not mean that they are not affected or experience trauma.
For first responders who take suicide calls and speak with a person through the last few minutes of their life, the trauma is very real.
Dispatchers too, work individually while other first responders work as teams. After a traumatic incident, two officers might grab a coffee, decompress and talk about the incident. However, The emergency dispatcher often can’t take the time to decompress before needing to get back on the phone lines to handle another call.
The Effects of The Job
While not previously recognized, the effects of being an emergency dispatcher are becoming more clear. In 2013, being an EMD was ranked the 13th most stressful job in America. The job is highly demanding, dispatchers deal with constant bursts of adrenaline as they receive panicked calls for up to 12 hours a day.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
The risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is high in the profession. Psychology Today wrote an article describing how a dispatcher named Gail was diagnosed with PTSD after she took a call from a family that had just witnessed their three-year-old child plummet to his death from a 17th story apartment.
Gail had to listen to the family scream and cry in horror, and as per her job guidelines, she had to instruct them to attempt to save the boy, even though she could tell from their description that the child was dead. Gail may not have been at the scene of that call, but it affects her to this day.
Another common side effect of the emergency dispatcher job is experiencing vicarious trauma. One of the effects of vicarious trauma is becoming pessimistic and cynical.
“I began to filter everything through suspicion. Every coach or minister had to prove they weren’t a child molester. Every person walking by my house had to prove he or she wasn’t a burglar. I truly picked up the feeling that everyone and everything was a threat.”
A study of EMDs concluded that EMDs feel they are exposed to “a ‘darker side’ of life. Due to the calls surrounding assault, substance abuse, murder, and mental health problems. One first responder reported starting to grow suspicious of everyone.
Perhaps the most prevalent of all is the reports is burnout. Burnout is a special type of job strain that results from prolonged stress. It leads to physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion. Often leading the individual to feel “low-job satisfaction, powerlessness and the feeling of being overwhelmed.” In the work environment of an emergency dispatcher, this cocktail of scenarios easily emerges.
Powerlessness: Often dispatchers can only help to a certain degree. If the emergency responders do not arrive in time, the dispatcher must hear the caller succumb to their injuries/attacker/situation.
Low Job Satisfaction: Even if the dispatcher can keep the caller calm and get assistance out on time, they usually do not hear if the caller was saved. Once responders are on the scene, the caller gets off the phone. They do not get the ‘thank-you’ from the saved ones or the closure to find out if the caller didn’t make it.
Feeling of Being Overwhelmed: Between the long shifts, mandatory overtime, and the back-to-back calls, it is easy to feel overwhelmed in the job. To put down the phone after hearing someone have a heart attack and immediately answer the next call of someone screaming that they can’t find their child, there can be no time for recovery.
These conditions affect our dispatchers and begin to shape their personal lives. They must know how to fight against these circumstances and care for themselves.
How to Recognize Burnout
- Chronic fatigue
- Physical symptoms such as chest pain, headaches, shortness of breath
- Loss of appetite
- Increased anger and/or irritability
- Loss of enjoyment
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Lack of productivity and poor performance