911 Dispatchers at Risk for PTSD

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Unaddressed Trauma Creates Problems at Home, Work

"I have a suicidal dispatcher I'm seeing now," Roberts said.

Distraught dispatchers have the same problems as combat veterans and others with post-traumatic stress, including more workplace conflicts and problems at home.

"They begin to use alcohol and they will sometimes consider suicide," she said.

However, if dispatchers are included in the debriefings following a highly stressful incident, "we can avoid all of that."

Monica Gavio, coordinator for the Burlington County, N.J., 911 communications center, and a 30-year veteran in emergency dispatch, said proper training in stress management also can help.

As a certified instructor, Gavio talks "about the stress of the job and things that it can do to you mentally and physically if you don't take care of yourself."

She also teaches dispatchers-to-be "to recognize the symptoms of somebody being upset by a call so that they can be released from their position to take some time out to kind of regroup."

One of the biggest stressors, Gavio said, is not knowing what happens to callers after help arrives.

"We don't know the end result," Gavio said. "We don't know if they made it. There is no formal communication back to us."

Many departments continue to treat dispatchers like "second-class citizens," despite the enormous psychological burdens they carry from fielding calls where they feel powerless, said Ellen Kirschman, a clinical psychologist in Redwood City, Calif., who treats first responders and trains some of them in peer support. Just last week, she met a dispatcher who described the unbearable agony of "hearing somebody burning to death. The responders could not get in and the dispatcher tried to stay on the line reassuring this person."

Unlike police and firefighters who can "spill a little" of their excess adrenaline with all the physical activity at the scene, dispatchers are chained to their computers as they juggle tasks that few people appreciate, Kirschman said.

"They are not like switchboard operators," she said. "They work on highly technical computers. They're managing a lot of information. Not everybody can do that job at all."

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