911 dispatchers at high risk for PTSD

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COUNTY — “My husband shot himself in the head! What do I do?”

This was just one of the things Cammie Sprague, a shift supervisor, heard when she answered the phone at the Oxford County Regional Communications Center (OCRCC), “911-what is the address of your emergency?”

Another call, a grandmother hysterically saying she found her granddaughter hanging. Another, a 12-year-old attempting suicide.

“Five shifts in a row,” she says, were suicide attempts or actual suicide.

Then there are the overdoses. A father calling that his son is non-responsive, having overdosed on heroin. What should he do? The 911 operator begins talking him through the steps for CPR … on his child.

Of the 10 most stressful jobs in America, according to the American Psychological Association, first responders lead the way. And the first, first responder, is the 911 dispatcher.

Before the police, fire or rescue get on scene, the 911 dispatcher is talking with the caller, calming them while trying to get rational, specific information so they can dispatch the appropriate responders.

Some calls are worse than others.

In between ringing phones, law enforcement and rescue dispatching, the team of dispatchers talk about their experiences in this high stress job.

Dispatcher Nicole Newton tells of a call where a son found his mother hanging and a mom who found her son dead.

These calls take their toll on dispatchers who, with all their training and experience, are still, inside, just human beings with empathy and caring.

Taking a domestic assault call where the dispatcher can hear how the children are being treated in the background, or having a parent hand the phone to their child because the dispatcher had to ask for someone to speak with who wasn’t so upset. And then, says Supervisor Melissa Adams, “the child has to tell me the mother’s boyfriend is dead from an overdoes, [and I have to ask a child to] check for a pulse, and fill the role of the adult on the scene.”

“I have children,” she say, “and calls like this are upsetting.”

“A lot of the suicide attempts, suicides and drug overdoses are young people,” adds Nicole.

“Typically, I can walk out and forget about the calls,” she says. She then admits that might not be true but she is worried that if she admits to being upset and stressed, it will be seen as not being able to do her job. And that adds more stress.

The 911 calls aren’t the only stressors about their jobs. Some dispatchers are married to or in relationships with law enforcement officers, but their job is to send these same and other officers into dangerous situations.

“We’re still reeling from the Desjardins accident,” say Nicole and Dispatcher Candice Jack.

Twenty-year-old Fryeburg Police Officer Nathan Desjardins died in a boating accident during his first day of water rescue training. These OCRCC dispatchers handled that hours-long call.

And the dispatchers on that day, took it home with them, locked away, inside. They say it still haunts them.

Fire and rescue calls carry their own types of stress, most often with bad radios that cut in and out or are full of static so the dispatcher has to ask the caller to repeat themselves multiple times, frustrating both parties.

These are all big risk factors (for stress-related injury or PTSI). Then there are the common risk factors, the more irritating or frustrating things that add up as stressors.

“We get calls like, ‘my cat is stuck in a tree,’ ‘When are the fireworks starting?’ ‘I locked my keys in the car,’ ‘when will the power come back on?’ “I’m stuck in traffic that’s not moving,’ and they all come in on the 911 emergency line,” they all chime in sharing examples and their frustration. Individually calls such as these are just annoying, but add them to real emergencies over a 12-hour shift, and they take their toll.

“There are also the things we have no control over,” adds Dispatcher Beverly Stevens. She cites the unexpected, unannounced arrival of digital time clocks, where if they clocked out at the dot of 6 p.m. (the end of a shift) they were docked 30 minutes, even though they may have come in 15 minutes early. And, no, they were not paid for the 15 minutes, she says. 

Other common stressors include mandatory overtime, being short staffed, work mandates for all county workers, even though the jobs are vastly different.

“For example,” says Beverly, “we are completely isolated. We can’t even leave and go buy lunch. Everyone else [at the county complex] can, but we can’t. There is so much out of our control that we can’t fix.”

In fact, they are behind locked doors in the PSAP (Public Safety Answering Point) center. And they are normally always busy. Responsible for all th 911 calls for the entire county, they dispatch fire, rescue and law enforcement which includes eight police departments and Sheriff’s deputies as well as every fire department and rescue squad in the county.

They also liaise with the State Police when needed, Emergency Management and  they have been known to keep the PSAP up and running in a mobile unit even when the entire center is taken down by a lightening strike as it was a year ago.

There is little about the job that isn’t stressful.

Another hidden stressor, says Cammie, is the fact that they all sit for 12-hour shifts. “I sit on my ass and get fat!”

She says she and her doctor have had multiple conversations about weight and stress. “I have a health coach,” she says, “and we talk about why I eat the way I do, why I do a lot of things they way I do.”

The common denominator? Work place stress.

“But,” Nicole is quick to add, “I don’t tell anyone because I am afraid they will think I can’t do my job.”

Nicole is among hundreds of dispatchers nationwide who worry about this, according to recent studies that show dispatchers are on the front lines of occupational stress.

Stress is actually caused by a series of physical reactions to a stimulus or stressor. Hormones are released – adrenalin and cortisol – blood pressure spikes, sugar supplies are dumped and rush to the brain and body and the immune system is powered up.

Once the stressor is over, the body needs to rest and restore. However in a PSAP center, the phone is always ringing, the emergencies always coming. There are normally only three dispatchers per 12-hour shift – the call taker, a fire/rescue dispatcher and a law enforcement dispatcher. No one has much opportunity to rest and restore.

Over time, repeated stress response can deplete reserves. Researchers have found high incidents of PTSD and PTSI among dispatchers.

“Some days are harder than others,” says Cammie, “We have to keep going and put everything in the back of our mind.”

She says there’s an employee assistance program through Anthem Blue Cross and she has heard other dispatchers may have tried using that.

“The problem,” notes the others, “is that the person providing the assistance has no idea what a dispatcher has to deal with so the help is limited.”

“We all live in small communities,” adds Nicole, “and we often know the people calling 911.”

Cammie says she has answered the 911 line to discover a friend or family member calling in an emergency and she has to handle it professionally and unemotionally.

Candice is especially affected by calls from the elderly or having to talk a parent through CPR on a child. She recalls Deputy Matthew Baker doing CPR on his daughter via 911.

“There is no closure for first responders,” she says. “There is no first responder counseling.”

“We talk to each other,” adds Melissa and the more we talk about the signs and symptoms of stress, the more we realize that many of us have them.”

“Another stress source,” says Beverly, “is we have liability for every word we speak on a call. We need to get it right.”

Dealing with it

Dispatchers say that they don’t get stress-related help from the county. Occasionally, with a really bad call, the outside department handling the call may include them in after-incident counseling, such a Fryeburg did after Desjardins died.

So they decided to help themselves.

After weeks of discussion, sharing of concerns and possible solutions, they decided unanimously to get a therapy cat.

So, pooling their personal resources, they adopted an  imperfect cat from Responsible Pet Care. The cat had an eye tumor that had to be treated and now has only one-eye. Every dispatcher contributes to cover the cost and care of the cat. No tax dollars are spent.

Chia on his perch waiting to sense a need.
(Phoyo by A.M. Sheehan)

Enter Chia D. Spatcher.

And enter he does.

With a commanding air, Chia saunters into the center, glances around then sits and looks at you.

The phone rings, the tones are sounded and Chia walks over to the dispatcher on the phone and waits. When the call is finished, he rubs against a leg.

“He’s right there,” says Melissa, “after a bad call, and your whole demeanor changes.”

She says Chia causes her to relax, breath and change her outlook.

“He’s there and he distract’s you from the upset and brings back your focus,” adds Beverly.

“He’s benign support in an inherently stressful job … he offers so much support,” says Melissa.

“He seems to just know [when he is needed],” Candice says.

Even Chia needs some stress relief. (Photo by A.M. Sheehan)

The symptoms of PTSI and stress include guilt, sleeplessness, anxiety, mood swings, depression and hyperawareness and they all agree they have those symptoms.

OCRCC is not alone using a therapy animal to help relieve occupational stress in a PSAP Center.

Ohio, Florida, Boston, Tennessee and South Carolina are just a few of the dispatch centers nationwide that have therapy animals to help offset the stress that comes with the job.

“Our call takers and dispatchers really don’t get enough credit for the work they do,” Boston Commissioner William Evans said in a published report. “Each and every day they’re handling high-stress calls with poise, calm and professionalism.”

asheehan@sunmediagroup.net