Care for Communicators
I did not witness firsthand the emergency, but what I heard (and imagined) made me just as vulnerable to post-traumatic stress as first responders on the scene.
I’ve heard some of the most disturbing sounds throughout my career, as a Kentucky State Police Dispatcher. I’ve listened to the anguished cries of a mother holding her baby and begging the child not to die. I’ve heard a trooper scream out over the radio, “shots fired,” not knowing if he was hit or if he had to kill someone.
Telecommunicators are repeatedly confronted with stressful events, and it sticks with us for a long time.
Some events still haunt me to this day. Along with the stress of being on the receiving end of tough calls, emergency dispatchers also deal with the pressure and demand of following protocol, despite variability in situations.
My role at KSP Post 7 in Richmond covered 11 counties. Numerous troopers’ lives depended on dispatchers being on top of their game, and providing them all the “need to know” and “nice to know” information to ensure they made it home each day to their families.
While protocols can be useful for guiding dispatchers through stressful situations in other circumstances, they can cause pain and discomfort when a dispatcher can tell that a situation is hopeless. We are not trained to deal with cases uniquely. We are expected to follow routine questions regardless of circumstances.
My eldest brother, Chalmer, served as a trooper from 1969 to 1975 and as Magoffin County sheriff 1986 to 1998. He had to remind me that I can’t save everyone and to try not to worry about the things I can’t change. He said, “Take a deep breath, do your job, and keep going on. Everyone else needs you because there’s no downtime.”
Stress affects our work performance, personal relationships, social relationships and creates a multitude of physical manifestations. Disruptive sleep, headaches, unusual fatigue, weight gain, eating disorders, upset stomach and depression are just a few of those maladies.
When my friends and family started pointing out significant changes in me, from being hateful, weight gain, not smiling and increasing cholesterol levels, I had to start evaluating my lifestyle and get it all under control. Trauma is a fact of life. Believe it or not, the body keeps score and post-traumatic stress can wreak havoc on our bodies.
I tried different methods such as reading and counseling, and that did not seem to have an impact. This was when I developed healthy-eating habits, cooking my meals at home, eating smaller meals and more frequently, about every two and a half to three hours, time permitting.
I also added running and weight lifting five days a week to my regimen.
Soon, I discovered Mud Obstacle Courses to participate in, and those events provided me a much-needed outlet. It was a way to cope and deal with work stressors.
I started feeling so much better; I liked myself again. I loved it so much I made a vow to myself to sign up at least once a month. It ended up being more than that because of all the cool medals and t-shirts. I had learned to make time for myself at least an hour a day in the gym and running mud courses and 5ks. It became a balancing act of life.
While post-traumatic stress is a challenging issue, many people experiencing PTS never seek out treatment. Often this occurs because people are afraid they will not be supported in their recovery or worry they will be looked upon as weak.
It is important for agency heads to be on board. For example, a communication center can find an online PTS screener and invite employees to complete the quiz. Communication center directors can also sweeten the deal by offering telecommunicators an extra break during a shift if they complete the test.
By having telecommunicators complete online quizzes and engage in wellness checks, the results could provide dispatchers with feedback and help them determine if they are at risk for PTS.
I experienced vicarious trauma, also known as compassion fatigue. It resulted from my years helping callers and officers who were experiencing the worst day of their lives.
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 a baby’s first cry.
Talk to your health care provider and learn everything you can about post-traumatic stress.
Tell your family and friends about your concerns, such as anger and depression, and help them understand what you are experiencing. Moreover, take time to exercise and eat healthy foods, as these necessities give you energy and promote good health.
Individual and group therapy and support groups could benefit you. Also, spend time engaging with family and friends; don’t close out the rest of the world.
There are several books at the library or available for purchase to help with healthy coping mechanisms.
Last but not least, find time for prayer, meditation and quiet moments.
An emergency dispatcher’s job has been called a thankless occupation, but if, at the end of the day, you can feel you did your best, it is worth it.