Dispatcher trauma: The unique stress of the job (and how to overcome it)

Just because dispatchers don’t witness trauma first-hand doesn't mean they are not potentially vulnerable to the stressful aftermath

The kind of stress that 911 dispatchers experience is not the garden-variety stress the average person experiences. The stress experienced by dispatchers is what develops with listening to someone else’s absolute worst day — every day.

Just like other members of any emergency response team, a dispatcher can handle a hundred situations effortlessly, yet there may be one that triggers him or her. Even in that one moment when the one call gets under your skin, the 911 dispatcher must carry on.

The Dispatcher Experience

A dispatcher can handle a hundred situations effortlessly, yet there may be one that triggers him or her.
A dispatcher can handle a hundred situations effortlessly, yet there may be one that triggers him or her. (AP Image)

Newly retired California Highway Patrol dispatcher Rae Ramirez dedicated 32 years to the job and is very familiar with the demands and stressors of the job. Ramirez’s career began in San Francisco in 1983. There isn’t much she hasn’t experienced during her career, and she said she loved every minute, even when it was difficult because she was passionate about the job.

According to Ramirez, being in tune with the officers you are dispatching is a crucial component of the job. She believes each new dispatcher is best served when he or she takes time to get to know their co-workers both on and off patrol.

“Anticipate their needs, know when something is wrong by the tone of their voice and work to develop trust,” she said.

This depth of personal investment in the job will make for a great dispatcher. But this process can also create emotional vulnerability to vicarious experience of traumati situations.

After so many years on the job, Ramirez said she eventually learned to recognize the early symptoms of post-traumatic stress. After a particularly upsetting shift, she would intentionally take some quiet time alone to recharge and clear her mind.

As a dispatch training officer, Ramirez would advise her new trainees working a critical incident and under great stress to take a breath, then keep going, because “There is no down time.”

Vicarious Trauma

Emergency dispatchers can suffer vicarious trauma  (aka compassion fatigue) as a result of their years of helping callers and officers who are experiencing the worst day of their lives. This stress resulting from constant secondary exposure to trauma is considered the cost dispatchers pay as a result of caring for others. Answering the line and hearing gunfire, beatings, sometimes silence and crying, a dispatcher is the first responder. Dispatchers hear callers take their last breaths and often a baby’s first cry.

According to a study conducted by the Journal of Traumatic Stress, the most commonly identified worst calls for dispatchers to cope with were the unexpected injury or death of a child, followed by suicidal callers and shootings involving officers.  The associated emotional responses were feelings of fear, helplessness or horror.

The argument that because dispatchers are not responding on the scene to calls and witnessing trauma first-hand they are not potentially vulnerable to the stressful aftermath is completely false. Emergency dispatchers are still very susceptible to the effects of stress and PTSD, even though they are not on scene at the event. As a dispatcher experiences continual and overwhelming volumes of emotionally charged calls, the body, mind and spirit respond in ways to protect and help the person cope. Cumulative stress can affect work performance, work attendance, personal relationships and social relationships, in addition to presenting a multitude of physical manifestations.

Stress Symptoms

Somatization is the process in which the brain translates emotional stimuli and stress into physical symptoms. These somatic symptoms include migraines, gastrointestinal distress, nausea and tension headaches. These physical manifestations of stress are found frequently among the 911 dispatcher population and other first responders.

Other physical symptoms of vicarious traumatization include exhaustion, insomnia and increased susceptibility to illness. Additionally, sufferers of vicarious trauma can exhibit an increased use of alcohol or drugs, increased anger and irritability and an impaired ability to make decisions.

Thankless Job

Any traumatic situation can cause a flood of powerful and unfamiliar emotional responses. The emotions are a normal but painful response by healthy people to an abnormal situation, but this emotional wave has the potential to interfere with a dispatcher’s ability to function in daily life and is considered critical incident stress.

The normal workday of an emergency dispatcher is abnormal in every way. When the trauma and stress of a dispatcher is disregarded and unacknowledged, it becomes destructive. A timely debriefing and diffusion of painful feelings, in addition to the support of family and friends, can be an effective coping tool.

Above all, remember that you are there because you believe in helping people. “The Dispatcher’s Prayer” reminds us that you make a difference each and every day – and have meaningful impact in people’s lives.

“The job of an emergency dispatcher has been called a thankless job,” said Ramirez, “but if you can feel at the end of the day you did your absolute best, it is worth it.” 

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