Frontline Dispatchers Voice Concern re: NG911

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



… 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.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Frontline Dispatchers Voice Concern re: NG911

  1. 911wellness says:

    Dear Michigan 911 Dispatcher:
    First, thanks so much for taking time to express your concerns about NG911. It is very understandable that your first hand experience at the console would lead you to seeing forward vividly to what it could be like handling those worst calls. Those of us who have not “sat the console” simply don’t have the baseline experience from which to extrapolate how it may feel when you are encountering callers via NG911 real time video. That is why it is so important for stakeholders to hear your voice and engage dispatchers in the planning stages of NG911’s development. Some could dismiss your statement that video should not be introduced as an emotional and unrealistic reaction. However that would be so unfortunate since your message needs to be heard: it represents how many of your coworkers feel. You are raising a concern that should raise the curiosity among stakeholders leading to thorough discussion, and hopefully increased prioritization on stress prevention in NG911 planning. Thanks again for expressing yourself!
    Jim M.

  2. Deborah Achtenberg, ENP says:

    I retired in 2003 as a PSAP Coordinator. I can’t even imagine working in a comm center with all the technology that has been added in the last eight years let alone the injection of NG911. Preparing the nations 911 community for the mental impact should be a consideration before implementation not as an after-thought, as is the case so much of the time. I’m grateful that there are 911 educators and leaders who are exploring the ramifications [to the front-line call-takers] of this destined technology.

    • 911wellness says:

      Deborah:Thanks much for stepping forward with your thoughts. Many of our most experienced 911 telecommunicators still working the console have expressed feelings similar to yours, which is significant since these are our battle-proven veterans. Fortunately as I continue networking with government officials and those integrally involved in the development of NG911, I’m finding a tremendous openness to concerns like yours. Please know, Deborah, that the Foundation will work hard to carry your message into our collaborations with other 911 stakeholders as we help to establish NG911 policy, standards, and funding to preserve and foster the wellbeing of your PSAP coworkers. And please don’t make this your last visit to our Foundation blog: we need to hear your opinions as we go forward!
      With appreciation and warm regards,

      Jim Marshall

  3. D Taylor says:

    I am the Administrative Supervisor over the training unit in telecommunications and this new technology affiliated with NG911 deeply concerns me. Being the one responsible for training new telecommunicators, I can’t even begin to come up with ideas of how to prepare someone to witness the traumatic events they will handle in their career. How do you prepare someone to watch what they are activly trying to handle with the utmost professionalism. It is much easier not to become emotionally involved with the call when you can not see the fear and pain in the faces of those you are talking to. In my 27 years of experience, I personally have taken calls where the caller didn’t want to die alone, therefore made the call and committed suicide while on the phone. One female shot herself in the head and it did not have the outcome she had hoped for. I talked to her for 45 minutes while deputies searched for her and finally found her, alive. With these types of calls, let alone the innocent victim calls, I cannot fathom having to maintain that composure if I had witnessed the event first hand. Again, how do you train or prepare a call-taker to watch a criminal violent act. I can think of no other profession that has that type of expectation of its employees!

    • 911wellness says:

      Thank you for your comment. First I want to offer a thought to our readers to invite more comment in response to this and other posts. As noted elsewhere on the site, the Foundation’s intent is not to fuel negativity or undue alarm, but to welcome all constructive dialog about the predictable benefits and risks involved with NG911 towards building proactive support among all 911 stakeholders in creating the healthiest possible NG911 experience. This commentator’s statement represents the concerns shared by many telecommunicators in the U.S. who have attended NENA and Navigator presentations on the subject. The foundation holds that we must welcome such open expression even as we see the many benefits of NG911, so that we are truly prepared as it reaches 911 consoles one PSAP at a time. We welcome all such constructive comments and hope to hear from those of you who may have a different perspective.

      In response to this specific comment, I have been called a “psychotic optimist” by those who know my penchant for believing there is indeed a pony amidst the manure, but usually there is in fact a horse to be found. NG911 represents a workhorse (powerful technology) the 911 industry can indeed ride into the future to produce much richer information for emergency response. Yet, unless we fully prepare for the predictable psychological impacts on the 911 professionals who must manage NG calls, this will be a wild horse that can do great damage: there’s nothing inherently wrong with the beast (the technology) but it must be properly tamed. Accordingly, the foundation supports implementation of NG911 with this proviso. It is our mission to serve all 911 stakeholders by providing the leadership needed within the industry to support methodical pursuit of advance solutions by Subject Matter Experts within the industry, local, state and federal government, and joined by our membership organizations. We would greatly appreciate any ideas you have for helping us fulfill this mission. And again, thanks much for writing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s