Thought Leadership

The Demand of Duty: 911 Dispatchers’ Health and Wellness

Every day 911 dispatchers are faced with hearing the most traumatic moments of a person’s life. From victims in burning homes to burglaries in progress, suicide attempts, armed robberies, automobile fatalities and even murders – dispatchers are expected to stay calm under pressure while handling some of the most stressful circumstances.

Dispatchers work to coordinate emergency services for citizens in need. However, who responds to the need of the responders?

Research and literature on the mental health of first responders have been primarily focused on those in the field – yet, there is a gap in the prioritization of telecommunicators. They have become forgotten victims, suffering in silence from mental health struggles.

A combination of the stressful nature of the job, and the lack and supportive resources, have created a multitude of mental health disparities.

Research

Research proves there is a mental health crisis among telecommunicators.

In a study conducted by the National Library of Medicine, 758 individuals were surveyed to understand the health challenges of 911 telecommunicators. The results of the study showed that participants that exhibited greater physical health complaints also experienced a high level of depressive symptoms, alcohol abuse, PTSD symptoms, psychological inflexibility and emotion dysregulation, as well as peritraumatic distress and dissociation.

The research also showed that physical and mental health complaints among 911 telecommunicators were roughly equivalent to data specific to firefighters and police officers. Among the most common health challenges found in this study were insomnia/difficulty sleeping. Alcohol use problems were identified as one of the coping methods used to handle the pressure of the job.

In 2016, an emergency telecommunicator was diagnosed with PTSD after she took a call from a family where a three-year-old boy fell from a 17-story building. During the call, she says that she could hear the screams and cries of the family. The traumatic experience, as well as the diagnosis, ultimately affected her ability to perform on the job.

According to Dr. Michelle Lilly of Northern Illinois University, in a study conducted on 170 telecommunicators across the nation, 18-24% of respondents indicated symptoms of PTSD. The study categorized 4 primary PTSD symptom groups including avoidance, numbing, hypervigilance and re-experiencing.

Hypervigilance was the most commonly reported symptom in this study. Telecommunicators who indicated signs of hypervigilance were also prone to alcohol and drug use as a coping strategy.

How to Handle the Demands of Duty

The pressure of taking emergency calls daily, and having to handle each call with care, can be an overwhelming task. It is vital for 911 telecommunicators to have access to resources that mitigate the stress of duty.

The National Library of Medicine indicates that having support from peers, friends and family is an effective method to reduce the emotional burden of the work. Having informal support from peers, and formal assistance from a trained peer support officer can help alleviate stress. It is important that your agency establishes a safe space where employees can communicate their concerns and frustrations.

Agencies across the country have implemented different practices to help positively deal with stress. The Santa Ana, CA Police Dispatch department uses tools such as guided meditation, meditation rooms, therapy animals and exercise equipment to help with mental exhaustion.

It is also important to understand and recognize burnout.

Some burnout signs can consist of complaints of aches and pain, chronic fatigue, headaches and insomnia. Being aware of early signs of burnout enables you to handle mental health concerns before they become severe.

There are additional steps managers can take to help support employees including:

  1. Offering debriefing
  2. Providing space to think and decompress
  3. Providing access to professional support and counseling
  4. Celebrating employee success

Mental Health Resources for Telecommunicators

The National Alliance on Mental Illness also offers additional resources and tools for public safety professionals.

Learn more about how these resources can help those in need.