911 Dispatchers

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.

“You never expect to take a call like that. I had to talk my father-in-law through what we both feared might have been my mother-in-law’s heart attack.”

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.

Vicarious Trauma

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.

Burnout

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

The good news is, there are steps that can be taken by dispatchers to battle dispatch fatigue. The first and most important step is being able to identify when you are experiencing burnout, PTSD, or vicarious trauma.
 
By recognizing the indicators of these conditions in yourself, or your coworkers, you can take early steps to reverse the effects.
 
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Physical symptoms such as chest pain, headaches, shortness of breath
  • Loss of appetite
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Increased anger and/or irritability
  • Loss of enjoyment
  • Pessimism
  • Isolation
  • Detachment
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Lack of productivity and poor performance

Preventing Dispatcher Burnout

Dispatch centers can take preventative measures before even hiring a recruit for a dispatcher position. Most dispatch centers screen applications with a psychological assessment to ensure that the individuals can handle the complexities of the job. However, an argument has been made that these assessments should continue after the individual is hired, as regular check-ins. For example, the RCMP reassess its dispatchers every two years to ensure that nothing has changed for the individual’s mental health.
Recognize that you are experiencing stress before it turns into something else. Ignoring stress can leave it to compound and develop into burnout. Some dispatch centers in Canada are teaching new recruits “to recognize signs of stress, whether the symptoms are physical, emotional or behavioral. Through role-playing scenarios, trainees learn about personal triggers and are encouraged to discuss their emotional reactions.”

Practice Self Care

 
If a dispatcher has identified that they are overly stressed, the best preventative practice would then be self-care. Eating healthy, exercising, relaxing in any form, yoga and meditation are proven methods to relax and take care of yourself, significantly decreasing your stress levels.
Getting enough sleep is also a priority. Getting 7-8 hours of sleep most nights will allow your mind and body to recover and protects your health.

 

Limit Caffeine Consumption

 
It is recommended that caffeine intake should be limited in the afternoons, as one cup of coffee can disrupt your eight hours of sleep later. While this is easy to suggest, and harder to implement due to the 12 hour shifts where dispatchers need to be on constant alert, it is a vital to cut down on caffeine. The simple fact of the matter is that dispatchers already have enough adrenaline pumping through them throughout the day due to the high-pressure stakes of many calls.  Caffeine can cause “nervousness, sleeplessness and irritability” so it is best to avoid it when possible.

The Combat Technique

 
Dave Larton, an associate editor for 9-1-1Magazine.com, who has 35 years of emergency service experience, teaches “trainees to use combat breathing” (also known as tactical breathing), during a call if they are feeling overwhelmed or anxious. This breathing technique is described as “four counts to breathe in, four counts holding that breathe, four counts to breathe out.” Larton believes that this will help them get through the call, at which point, they can take a few moments to recover.

 

 

Focus on Positive Outcomes

 
Most importantly, dispatchers need to learn how to focus on the positive – on the calls where they made a real difference. Where they helped a parent calm down and locate their child in the neighbor’s backyard, or where they walked someone through performing CPR on someone in need, or where they advised someone how to lock themselves into a bathroom until help came. These moments are the reasons they became a dispatcher in the first place – to help those in need. And they are saving countless lives with the work that they do every day.