A major emphasis in my training and presentations to 911 professionals is on how to buffer the risks of traumatic stress and compassion fatigue related to managing the “worst” calls (potential suicides/homicides). In preparing these telecommunicators to improve self care I consider it essential that they look ahead to changes that may increase their stress. So I inform them about Next Generation 911: what it is and how it may change their experience at the console. Most know very little about NG911.
But I am careful to NOT sensationalize and alarm them. I present the objective fact that they will be handling emergency calls from the public via texting and real time video. Yet, within a few minutes during such classroom discussions of NG911 the room tone changes. These 911 pros begin reflecting together on what it would be like to actually see the callers during the most violent and tragic calls, and a dread begins to seep in. Invariably — irrespective of the state, whether the PSAP is rural or city, whether dispatchers are new or veterans– many of these telecommunicators become visibly and deeply disturbed; they express very strong feelings of concern about the types of calls they will experience via real time video (see letter below).
They generally agree that NG911 technologies will likely boost emergency response capabilities leading to saving more lives and greater protection for our field responders. I help class participants work to build a list of such benefits in an effort to offset the potential threats NG911 poses to them personally. This is a precarious cost/benefit analysis though. There is a solid and deep concensus among these 911 telecommunicators: they fully expect to be more heavily exposed to traumatic experiences at the NG911 console. Most believe that NG911 will make their jobs far more difficult emotionally and thus pose a greater risk to their health.
As you will note from my columns here on the blog and in my formal comments to the FCC, I am in full agreement with these concerns. As much as I wish dispatchers’ apprehensions were not merited, I know as a mental health clinician simply on the basis of current knowledge in traumatology that mental health risks will escalate with NG911. And that is the impetus for creating the 911 Wellness Foundation. Still I urge frontline dispatchers to avoid over-reacting, catastrophizing or poising as victims–all of which will invalidate their voices which we so desperately need to hear in shaping NG911.
Public Safety Telecommunicators are the Subject Matter Experts in Real-Time 911 Console Operations. I assure them that 911 stakeholders will listen as they share their concerns articulately, with respect, and with balance. This blog represents a forum in which such critical dialog can happen.
So, we are now featuring letters from dispatchers and all 911 stakeholders pertaining to concerns about the impact of NG911 on the person of the dispatcher. We pledge to publish these letters irrespective of the Foundation’s level of agreement with the writer’s paticular views. Your letters will be edited only for length, grammar, and appropriateness (excerpting offensive language if used) but never altering substance of message. The goal is to provide an open forum in which 911 stakholders join to explore and gain richer insight about this NG911 mental health issue. 911 leaders reading these comments will hopefully gain insight from frontliners’ and actively recruit them as full participants in the groups shaping national NG911 standards and the federal rules governing its implementation. Through such participation frontliners will be able to experience inclusion in policy making that affirms their voice and value in the greater 911 community.
The following message was offered by a veteran dispatcher from the midwest in response to a recent discussion during the course Survive and Thrive Together in the 911 Center. Name has been withheld by request. Readers with a personal history of violent trauma are cautioned as this writer does appropriately include some graphic details in her descriptions. This letter has been edited for length. Again I thank you for taking time to read this column. We welcome your responses! JM
LETTER FROM A VETERAN 911 TELECOMMUNICATOR
… let’s consider the physical and psychological trauma we will be continuously opening ourselves up to with NextGen911. As it stands now, we are psychologically at the scene of every crime/medical/fire. While those who do not do our job may never understand this, a dispatcher is in fact the first one to arrive on scene. We are the first one to assess the situation. We are the ones who essentially make or break how this call is going to be handled. We have built shields within us to protect ourselves from immediate trauma. We push our anxiety, our fear, our grief to the side in order to handle the call.
If we now become witnesses to crimes (a gunman decides he is going to kill his children, and calls 911 via video chat so we are aware of the situation, and trains the video on the kids as he pulls the trigger…) we have changed our perception of the call, and the caller. Having the children laying dead with their brain exposed, or just laying there with blood pouring out of them will invariably cause an uncontrollable response that would not have occurred had we not had a visual.
I understand that technology will come. I understand texting will come. I understand that photos will be sent. But video regardless of 2 way or 1 way, should never be allowed. It is NOT an awesome tool. It is NOT a helpful tool. It will be debilitating. It will make us witnesses to calls. Real time, first hand witnesses. We will bear those moments for the rest of our lives. Horrendous car accidents, industrial accidents, suicides, homicides, children drowned, children beaten… We bear internal, emotional scars as calltakers/radio operators. I cannot begin to imagine what we will do to ourselves if we are forced to become firsthand witnesses instead of first first responders. We are supposed to help. That is what our position is designed for. We are not supposed to be held captive by a caller with ill intent. While I understand it will not be the INTENTION of most callers, it WILL occur.
Using my own personal tragedies on the job as I spoke of earlier, I had a week stretch in my 7th year where I lost 9 people. 3 of them were to a house fire, and 2 of them were children…I spent years trying to scrub away the images I burned in my own head, I can’t imagine I would have ever come back if I had to bear witness in real time.
They do not take care of dispatchers as we exist now. If we are invited to debriefings it is just that; a debriefing of the call. We do not get Critical Incident Stress Management…How in the world are they going to take care of us through visually witnessing trauma? …How are they going to take care of us when we become paralyzed with fear when a gunman kills his kids and says you’re going to watch your officers kill me? The bottom line is, how much are they going to continue to put on our shoulders to deal with, without helping us deal with it?
…we are just humans who have a range of emotions that will be barraged with real time images of death, destruction, sadness, horror and heartbreak? These are the things I fear, and I am one of the stronger ones. Imagine what it will do to someone who is brand new. …Imagine what it will do to someone who has had a traumatic experience in their life who will now be forced to witness that same, or similar, incident occur to someone else. We are after all, human.