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Study: 911 dispatchers at risk for PTSD

April 20, 2012

Veteran 911 dispatcher Dave Miller (right) shows Doug Johnson, retired Brockway Borough Police chief and newly-recruited 911 dispatcher, the ins and outs of the job. Johnson has been a dispatcher for almost six months, while Miller has 16 years of experience. (Photo by Natalie Bruzda)

BROOKVILLE — The 911 dispatchers who field emergency calls are just as likely to experience symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as those on the front lines, a new study indicates.

The study, completed by Michelle Lilly, a psychology professor at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Ill., and research associate Heather Pierce, analyzed surveys completed by 171 emergency dispatchers from 24 states, the Huffington Post reported.

"People don't really realize that the dispatchers are truly the first responders to any incident, whether it's a fire, an EMS, a police or a crime in progress," Tracy Zents, director of Emergency Services for Jefferson County, said. "A lot of times, they feel the emotions that people are putting off onto them, but they never see the end result."

According to the study, more than 16 percent of the dispatchers said the most disturbing calls were about a child's death or injury, while 12.9 percent of them said the worst calls dealt with people who were suicidal.

Nearly 10 percent said their worst calls had to do with officer-related shootings, and the same percentage said unexpected death of an adult was their most traumatic sort of call.

Researchers found that 3.5 percent of people reported stressful reactions that were severe enough that they could be diagnosed for PTSD.

“Dispatchers experience the same traumatic syndromes that the field responders face,” Zents said.

Locally, he said the incident that most affected Jefferson County’s 911 dispatchers in recent history was the 2008 Brockway house fire that killed 10 people.

“It took a toll on the ones on the scene, but it also took a toll on the dispatchers, too, because a lot of them have children,” Zents said. “You always try to second-guess yourself: ‘Could I have done something different? Was there an action I could have taken here at the center? Would it have made a difference?’”

Following the fire, Zents called in a Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) team to work with the 911 dispatchers and aid them in the healing process.

A CISM debriefing session usually occurs between 48 and 72 hours after a traumatic event and is conducted by a mix of peer professionals, including members with mental health experience, EMS hospital, fire, law enforcement and clergy.

“It’s not taking away those memories; it’s how to deal with those memories,” Zents said. “And that’s the thing we work on with our folks here.”

Zents began work as a 911 dispatcher in the 1980s. Over the years, improvements have been made with respect to stress management.

“We’ve definitely learned, and we try to be more proactive in the lives of the dispatchers to make sure they’re coping with things OK,” he said. “I’ve had people over the years, back when I was a dispatcher, that they got so emotionally distraught with a call, that after the call was over, they left and never came back. We’ve learned how to help these people ... to try to keep them as a 911 dispatcher.”

Zents, along with Chris Clark, deputy director of 911 operations and technology, said they let their dispatchers know that their doors are always open. And because they work with each dispatcher on a frequent basis, they can usually tell when one of their own is having a stressful day.

“I’ll ask them to come into the office, to talk and to vent,” Clark said. “It can help. Even if it’s not work related, the office is always open to talk.”

Zents agreed. He said that many of his 20 dispatchers put a great deal of stress on themselves to make sure each call is handled properly.

“I can sense their stress, hear it in their voices,” he said. “But we all have to work with each other and depend on each other to reduce that stress.”

Doug Johnson, who served as chief of the Brockway Borough Police for more than 20 years and now works as a 911 dispatcher, said he and his co-workers are “perfectionists” when it comes to answering calls.

“We all strive to do a really good job and process the calls in an efficient manner and get the right equipment and help on the way to help people,” he said.

As director of the county’s emergency services, Zents also pressures himself to make sure everything runs smoothly at the 911 center.

Sometimes, that’s not always possible, he said, citing last month’s interruption of 911 services, which was blamed on a three-foot section of a copper trunk cable.

“I like to see things done 100 percent by the book,” Zents said. “But it doesn’t always happen. And I take responsibility here when something goes drastically wrong.”

But just as Zents and Clark can sense when their dispatchers are having a bad day, the dispatchers, too, look out for their bosses.

“They’ll say, ‘Hey boss, are you OK?’ It means a lot that they’re concerned about me, too,” Zents said.

Although 911 dispatchers are not out on the field responding to a fire or a crime in progress, they are typically referred to as the “first” first responders.

Some days, calls come in one after the other, and while a police officer is in the field dealing with one particular incident, dispatchers have to deal with multiple events and emotions, Zents said.

“It’s a real thankless job that (the 911 dispatchers) have to do,” he said. “Not only do they get the grief from their bosses here when they mess up, but then they hear it from the field, too. It’s all about putting it into perspective on how to deal with it: To keep them focused and make sure they’re able to do the best job that they can.”

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