It should come as no surprise that 911 dispatchers are at risk of developing PTSD from their collection of distressing calls.
In fact, dispatchers who take on increasing numbers of tragic 911 calls are just as vulnerable to PTSD as their EMS colleagues in the field, according to an article published in Journal of Emergency Dispatch titled “PTSD and Telecommunicators.” Author Anna Raskin interviewed Michelle Lilly, a Northern Illinois University associate professor of psychology, whose research suggests that between 18-24% of 911 dispatchers experience PTSD when psychologically evaluated.
New legislation is helping dispatchers ditch the oft-given clerical title, allowing “call-takers” to become classified as first responders and improve their access to healthcare. Just this year, California lawmakers recognized dispatchers as first responders, along with two counties in Colorado. West Virginia made it official in 2019, as did Texas and Kentucky, to name a few.
From a 911 dispatcher’s perspective
Many people agree the EMS profession is continually evolving. And for dispatchers who hear gunshots fired during domestic disputes or talk to callers who pull the trigger while on the phone it’s no different.
A lot has changed. Looking back at the 1990s, few people could even define the term PTSD, let alone lead lunch and learns over emotional resilience and self-care tactics for dispatchers — programs more common today. Water cooler talk about staying sane on the job wasn’t yet a thing, recalls Toni Daniel, a former 911 dispatcher. Instead, meeting at a pub, was, and still is to some degree, used for offloading complicated details of the day.
Daniel spent nearly nine years as a 911 dispatcher in Fayetteville, Ark. She eventually accepted a lead role and said she loved the job — and excelled at it. That is, until an unforgettable day when a series of bad calls changed everything.
“It was the turning point in my career,” Daniel said. “I knew the heaviness I felt from that day would not let me continue a career in dispatching.”
A fateful call
Daniel received a call about an incident that had started with a sheriff transporting a prisoner to a medical clinic. What appeared as a routine transport to a doctor’s office ended as a double homicide and suicide.
“I answered the phone and dispatched the police,” Daniel said. “We had plenty of staff. At first, one 911 line lit up, and then bang, all 911 lines opened up and we realized all the people were calling from the same place.”
While she sifted through incoming calls, Daniel pieced together disjointed and confusing information — details she needed to share with back-up officers before dispatching them. Her account seemed like a menagerie of broken and missing puzzle pieces that didn’t fit. As a 911 dispatcher, Daniel remained calm, managing her human emotions while horrific mental images played out in her head.
“There was so much chaos that day,” Daniel said. “The prisoner managed to get a hold of the deputy’s gun — in the clinic — and then killed the deputy.”
He then shot a civilian, who later died in surgery. The inmate eventually decided to turn the gun on himself, she said.
When asked whether they had counselors available for staff who handled those calls, authorities told them no.
The following day, Daniels arrived at work for a standard debriefing that included all dispatchers and police working the scene. As a team, they pieced together the events that unfolded 24 hours prior.
Rather than taking time off following the trauma, Daniel returned to work with her peers, choosing to resign shortly after.
Solutions for Emergency Medical Dispatchers
Today there are different standards in place to help 911 dispatchers manage tragic events such as the one Daniel experienced. Dispatchers are learning about the importance of self-efficacy and accepting social support to improve well-being, according to “Social Support, Self-efficacy, Trauma and Well-Being in Emergency Medical Dispatchers” published in the journal Social Indicators Research.
Although little research exists to provide evidence-based science for coping mechanisms for dispatchers managing job stress, a 2017 systematic review reports the benefits of seeking out peer support to reduce the “emotional burden” and having trained peer support on hand.
The review correlated job stress with poor employee communication, intense shift work and poor management. The authors also noted hobbies outside work, sufficient time off and support from friends and family as beneficial. Humor and storytelling helped, too.
“It is clear from the review that working as an [emergency dispatcher] is highly demanding, and that stress will be inevitable at times,” the authors wrote. “Interventions in the form of cognitive behavior therapy or mindfulness have been shown to reduce potential negative effects of working in highly demanding environments. Future research could explore how similar interventions might help EDC staff to cope effectively with work-related stress.”