Dispatchers can be the forgotten first responders when it comes to departmental concerns about the psychological well-being of service personnel. Yet they experience many of the same traumatic reactions to critical incidents and cumulative stress as police officers.

Dr. Michelle Lilly and research associate Heather Pierce of Northern Illinois University have conducted what is believed to be the first published study of on-duty emotional distress experienced by 911 dispatchers. They surveyed 171 dispatchers from 24 states, most of them Caucasian females averaging over 11 years on the job.

Their findings suggest that “one does not need to be physically present during a traumatic event, or to even know the victim of a trauma, in order for the event to cause significant mental health challenges,” Lilly says.

Callers to 911 “are often experiencing an emotional crisis and are hysterical. Telecommunicators are under enormous pressure to control their own emotions while extracting the pertinent information, securing the emergency scene, and communicating with multiple agencies–sometimes during life-and-death situations. Afterward, there’s little time to process what happened” before immediately pressing on with other urgent calls.

Surveyed dispatchers rated their “worst” (most distressing) calls as: unexpected injury or death of a child (16.4%), suicidal callers (12.9%), shootings involving officers and unexpected death of an adult (each 9.9%).

Participants reported “high levels of strong emotions,” including fear, helplessness, and horror in reaction to on-duty interactions. Their exposure to trauma, while indirect, puts dispatchers “at risk for developing symptoms of PTSD,” the researchers concluded.

Pierce cites a “strong need to enhance prevention and intervention efforts” where dispatchers are concerned. Agencies should encourage “discussion among dispatchers about the stresses of the job and how they handle it” and provide intervention services, including allowing dispatchers to participate in debriefings for officers after traumatic occurrences, the researchers recommend.

The full study is published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress and can be accessed for a fee. Click here to go to their download site.

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