Life of Constant Crises Takes Emotional Toll on 911 Operators

Emergency Dispatchers Can Suffer PTSD

“Having that thought in your mind stuck with you that when somebody does decide to pull the trigger while they’re on the phone with you, you’re the last voice that person has heard forever,” Fincher said. “They’ll never hear another voice and yours was the last one.”

“And then hearing somebody admit on the phone that, ‘Hey, I just stabbed my husband in the chest and he’s bleeding’ and stuff like that,” she continued. “Having a person call and say their 5-year-old child’s leg was just amputated by a bear trap … stuff like that just sticks with you.”

Fincher said those are the unforgettable calls that “haunt you, that you wish to God you could just block out.”

Once emergency services are on-scene, the callers usually hang up and the call-takers never know the outcome of the situations.

“After that heightened call, when we hang up, we don’t have any closure. We don’t know the end result of what happened,” said a dispatcher named Victoria from Massachusetts, who asked that her last name not be used. “Imagine yourself reading a really intense novel that you cannot put down and you turn the page and the last two chapters have been ripped out.”

The tolls of the job affect operators’ personal lives in various ways.

Some like Robert Schumacher, a dispatcher in Antioch, Ill., say they work hard to “compartmentalize” the different parts of their lives.

“I try to leave it at the door,” Schumacher said. "One recent call, it came home with me and bothered me for a day or so, but then you have to let it go. There’s nothing I can do personally. I did everything I could to help this person. I’ve never had any issues with PTSD or anything like that.”

Others can’t prevent the traumas of work from seeping into their personal lives.

"They’ll never hear another voice and yours was the last one."

Mundo, the Florida dispatcher, said 911 dispatchers and operators are expected to be as emotionally tough as hardened cops.

“In law enforcement, there’s this sub-culture or subconscious thought that says, if you need counseling, if you need help, then maybe you can’t take it,” Mundo said. “It’s kind of like a hero complex where you feel like you’re saving people all the time and even if you need help, you just want to brush it off and say, ‘You know what, forget it. I’ll just keep going.’ You just want to push through it when you really do need some help.”

Fincher reached her “breaking point” in 2012 when she was at the park with her daughter and realized that she was agitated all the time.

“If we keep this bottled up, we’re bound to explode and have a mental breakdown,” Fincher said. “I had reached a point where I was just so tired all the time, I was angry all the time and I really didn’t know why.”

She went to see a doctor and was diagnosed with PTSD from her job. Part of her treatment included making a Facebook page for 911 operators and dispatchers that provides a community for support and sharing.

The operators and dispatchers celebrate the joys of successful calls, whether it’s keeping a parent calm until they discover that their missing child has been hiding in the closet or talking someone through an injury until help arrives.

Michelle Lilly, a member of the Department of Psychology at Northern Illinois University, co-authored a study on the emotional stress endured by 911 operators and dispatchers.

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