Cool Under Pressure
If one were to ask an average resident in his or her community to describe their understanding of what a public safety dispatcher does, one would get responses like answering the phone, talking on the radio and even watching TV in their spare time. If one were to ask a responder the same questions, sadly the responses remain similar. This misunderstanding of what the public safety dispatcher does has never been more alarming than this past summer.
The Association of Public Safety Communications Officials attempted to reclassify public safety dispatchers from clerical to protective by the Federal Office of Management and Budget. This reclassification would not change job duties or benefits, and on face value, may not seem like much. What it would do is bring about a better understanding and appreciation for the job of public safety dispatcher. This reclassification further emphasizes the importance of the job and puts the profession on the same level as other first responders. This recognition would assist with hiring and retaining quality people in the profession.
“Telecommunicators often are not thought of as true ‘first responders’ because they are not actually on the scene,” said Josh Glover, director of Carlisle County 911. “This, to me, is a huge mistake not only made by lay citizens but by police, fire and EMS professionals. When the caller makes the call to 911, it often is when they are mentally and physically at their worst.”
It can be disheartening to see the dispatcher’s role in public safety thought of as unimportant. The public safety dispatcher is more than a clerical position; not everyone has the heart or the courage to do the job. The reclassification is about bringing recognition and respect to the job dispatchers do on a daily basis. No one wants to feel unappreciated or have their chosen profession looked down upon.
All too often public safety dispatchers are an afterthought. For example, if a fatal incident were to happen, dispatchers are not considered to be affected by it. That’s because they did not physically respond to it. This seems logical to a person looking in from outside the radio room, but to anyone who has ever worked as a public safety dispatcher, this cannot be further from the truth. Ashley Hawks with Kenton County 911 shared a perfect example of this common misunderstanding.
Hawks called a customer service representative in a large call-taking center with a concern about her mother not being able to utilize 911 from her phone. During the conversation, she mentioned she was a public safety dispatcher. The person told her she could understand his frustrations since she worked in a call center, too. Hawks let the gentleman speak and compare his clerical jobs to the lifesaving and stressful environment she worked in, realizing any attempt to explain the job or correct his perception would be futile.
“This is one of the biggest frustrations of our job,” Hawks said. “Unless someone sits in your chair, on your radio, tethered to the phone for hours and hours, listens to what you listen to, does what you do, they’ll never understand. I can try to explain how I’ve heard someone take their last breath, how I’ve brought a child into the world and conversely been on the phone with a mother who has discovered her child has passed away, how I’ve heard firefighters yell over the radio that they were being shot at, and how my job is so much more than taking a phone call, but no amount of this will give them a true understanding of what you do and how important you really are.”
A recent study conducted by researchers at Northern Illinois University, shows public safety dispatchers are prone to suffer from post-traumatic stress. Public safety dispatchers working in radio rooms across the country can vouch for that. PTS and depression eventually lead to other medical problems such as weight gain and high-blood pressure.
What the federal government, local communities and first responders fail to realize is that public safety dispatchers never get closure. They never see what actually happens with the calls. The minds of dispatchers are left to wonder and, unlike units that physically respond to the scene, dispatchers don’t stay on the critical incident for the remainder of the shift. A physical responder is dispatched to a critical incident, which depending on the situation may take hours, days or even weeks to clear. The dispatcher does not have that luxury; they are unable to see the call through to the end. Dispatchers often are bombarded with calls and work between eight and 12 hours a day with few opportunities for breaks and no time to reset between calls.
Georgetown Police Officer Abdullah Bholat recalls the stress he saw placed on dispatchers the night he was involved in a shooting. Bholat was shot by the suspect as he responded to a call wearing his vest, which saved his life.
“As a police officer who started out as a dispatcher, I definitely can agree with the need to reclassify dispatchers,” Bholat said. “At least as an officer, I am usually able to see a call from beginning to end and get closure. However, dispatchers don’t necessarily always get that.
“When I was shot, I saw the stress that it brought to the dispatchers who worked the incident after the fact,” he continued. “They often are forgotten and not included in post-incident debriefings. Knowing this, I did what I could to fill them in and help put their minds at ease, so their imaginations wouldn’t fill in the blanks for them. Being a dispatcher is definitely a job that is under paid and underappreciated.”
Anyone who has watched the local news has seen images of exhausted police, fire, EMS and other first responders after working long hours during a critical incident. What no one has seen or taken into account is the public safety dispatchers. Many work long, exhausting hours to ensure responders and communities receive the best service possible. But that critical incident making headlines on the evening news was not the only call they handled. Other 911 lines still rang with different emergencies.
Imagine a person trapped in a burning building talking to a dispatcher who is trying to assist them in getting out or just survive until help comes. While that emergency is happening, others are too – wrecks, domestic violence, EMS calls that require pre-arrival instruction. Public safety dispatchers must juggle each of those calls, never really seeing them to the end or getting any down time between them.
There is no way to describe the sound or feeling of hearing a person take their last breath on the phone. The dispatcher immediately wonders if he or she did enough or could have dispatched a little faster, and any number of other emotions.
Public safety dispatchers take several calls a night, experiencing this cycle two, three or even four times a shift. That emotional roller coaster will eventually take a toll on any person. It doesn’t help that this cycle could lead to PTS, depression, weight gain, various emotions and other health issues, leaving most dispatchers feeling as if no one understands where they are coming from. Talking to others about those experiences helps dispatchers work through these emotions and issues. It has become a more common practice to debrief dispatchers after an incident, and many agencies have seen the need to include dispatchers in stress debriefing.
The job of the public safety dispatcher is not promoted by agencies as a career. Many times it is the proverbial foot in the door to become a police officer or firefighter. Though there is nothing wrong with doing that, hiring and retaining dispatchers must improve, and the job reclassification would help. The stress level and burnout rate lead to incredible turnover within the radio room. There is little to no research on turnover within dispatch centers, but the average career span is three to five years. The job is too mission-critical to have a radio room staffed with inexperienced personnel caused by the high turnover rates that could be prevented.
The recognition and understanding of the job duties and emotions involved could help to alleviate some of the burnout. Dispatchers truly are the first ‘first responders.’
“Telecommunicators are the calm voice that the caller first hears. We are the one who ensures them that help is on the way; the ones who instruct them on CPR, and how to stay safe,” Glover said. “We give the precise location and directions to responding units. We are the ones who make it our goal to make sure each and every responder goes home safe to their families. If this is not a true first responder, I don’t know what is. Although 911 telecommunicators never step foot on the scene, they become emotionally connected to it and mentally put themselves there with the caller.”
Many agencies say they support public safety dispatchers, but refuse to put the first-responder label on them. Each time that 911 line rings, dispatchers’ hearts race and they go through a range of emotions as they assist the caller with the emergency, while obtaining the necessary information for those responders going to the scene. They are invested and involved in their communities and agencies, but often forgotten and misunderstood. The dispatcher is left feeling alone with no outlet to assist them in alleviating some of the stress and burnout. Thus, they leave the job but forever are affected by it.
Some of these issues can be remedied with education and recruiting. Police, fire and EMS routinely attend job fairs at colleges and high schools to actively seek out candidates. When have you ever seen a representative from a 911 center try to actively recruit employees? The answer is few and far between. There are agencies doing it now, but not many. The men and women who make up the public safety dispatch profession must come together to do a better job promoting the career and taking care of their health and emotional well-being.
Public safety dispatch centers must be seen in the public eye with positive stories, not negative ones. While this is improving, all too often employees who are unable to do the job are kept in this most crucial position. When asked why, most times the answer is they are dependable. There is more to being a dependable public safety dispatcher than just showing up for a shift.
Agencies must strive to find more people who take pride in the community, the agency, the profession, and most of all, in a job well done. Questionable employees should be dealt with accordingly. When protecting the lives of responders and the residents of the community, the word dependable should mean more than coming to work.
An emphasis should be put on educating the community on the duties of 911. First and foremost, explain to the community why a dispatcher has to ask questions while sending help. Show residents the big picture of how public safety actually works and the vital role dispatchers play. While this reclassification does not bring money or better benefits, it should give a better understanding of the stress related to dispatching, and more professionalism and longevity to a job that can be made into a rewarding career.
A recent video by Resolute Productions which is simply titled, “Dispatch – Short Film,” has been making news on social media sites. The video was created to demonstrate the range of emotions a dispatcher can go through while a handling a critical call. It won first place at the 2017 AT&T Developer Summit. As a professional, if you want to be respected, you must act the part. Dispatchers have to keep their emotions in check even though the person they are helping does not. It is hard to keep that level of composure without seeing the big picture.
By utilizing the big-picture approach, dispatchers can understand how to serve their job and community better, and truly realize what an impact they are making.
Dispatchers have the ability to make positive or negative impacts at crucial times in peoples’ lives. There are instances when small tokens of kindness prevented a violent outcome. You never know what people are struggling with, so a little empathy can go a long way.
The Department of Criminal Justice Training’s goal is to have zero new names added to the Kentucky Law Enforcement Memorial Foundation monument each year. Telecommunications instructors do not take that goal lightly. They do all they can to support public safety dispatchers. Responder safety starts in the radio room. Agencies are only as strong as their weakest link.