On December 1, I awoke in my hotel room in Kansas City, Missouri to the news of the K.C. Chief Jovan Belcher’s homicide/suicide. As a trauma therapist my mind moved through three phases of reflection: first, sorrow and concern for his mother, Cheryl Shepherd who watched him kill his girlfriend Kasandra Perkins, and for her now orphaned grandchild, Zoey. Then my thoughts shifted to Chiefs’ coach Romeo Crenell and a fellow player who witnessed Belcher take his own life later that morning. Certainly Shepherd, Crenell, and Belcher’s team mate were deeply traumatized, due to their physical and emotional proximity to the tragic events: they were there on-scene, and they shared a close relationship with those who died violently.
Then my mind went to the 911 professionals who managed the calls and dispatched the field- responders throughout that day. I knew these dispatchers would work for many intense hours without breaks, fully adrenalized, trying to respond to the frantic incoming flood of demands beginning with that first hysterical call from Jovan’s mother at 7:45 that morning, and escalating with the call and radio contact with officers leading to their report of a shot fired at 8:09 at the Chief’s practice facility. The K.C. dispatchers on the day shift would relay critical information to the field responders, striving to do so calmly and without error amidst a flurry of calls from the concerned public and the demanding media that would not stop until their work day came to an abrupt end.
It would be fair for you to wonder Why be so concerned for the dispatchers involved in that event? They were not on-scene, they did not have to see what the field responders faced when they arrived at his house and at the Chief’s facility, and these 911 workers did not have a personal relationship with those who died.” True, yet we know from Roberta Troxell’s research (2008) that on the most difficult calls, dispatchers are emotionally on-scene (which they visualize) and can be as impacted psychologically as the responders who were physically present. We also don’t know what personal traumas and other stressors in the dispatchers’ own lives might combine with such extraordinary work stress to place them at greater risk for compassion fatigue and stress-related illnesses, fueling more personal struggle and performance difficulties at the console.
At that Kansas City training, I introduced Jan Myers, 911 WF Board Member and Coordinator of Training for the Oregon Department of Public Safety Standards and Training (DPSST). By phone, Jan revealed to the room of 43 dispatch professionals her own story of a dispatching career with repeated exposures to trauma at the console involving suicide and homicide leading to an eventual diagnosis of PTSD. With her ownership of the need to seek help, Jan had sought help leading to her successful recovery. Jan’s story carried potent words of caution and hope to these 911 pros who would be back at work facing professional challenges like hers within a few days.
The Kansas City tragedy and Jan’s story are actually part of a larger tapestry of trauma, challenge, and hope being woven together throughout the United States involving the public, mental illness, and our first first responders. Ironically, I had come to K.C. to train 911 leaders and frontline telecommunicators from around the U.S. in psychological self care in the face of exposure to traumatic events. Little did Jan or I know that when we met again by phone with the 911 WF Board on Thursday, December 12, she would be briefing us all on another tragedy–the Portland Mall shootings.
She told us of the good work done by Clackamas County 911 dispatchers who managed the emergency response to the mall tragedy. Of course our hearts first went out to those who lost their lives and their families. Yet again we empathized with the 911 pros who took the barrage of calls that pounded their center that day. Jan also gave us reason for encouragement in line with the Foundation’s mission: the Clackamas dispatchers had gained the care and support they deserved: their center is one of the state’s leaders in assuring critical incident stress debriefing (CISD) and peer support for their telecommunicators.
Even Jeffrey Mitchell, a pioneer in Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) recognizes that CISD is only one portion of a fuller care package often needed by crisis workers to assure their wellbeing in the face of trauma (since therapy is often needed to reprocess such exposures). Yet debriefing and peer support are vitally important, and we commend Clackamas County 911 Director Bob Cozzie and his leadership team for upholding the health, performance, and retention of their 911 professionals by providing these and other support services. The Foundation is working to see that all 911 professionals receive such help. Our members are actively contributing to the work of the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) in their development of an industry wide standard of care proposing comprehensive stress management programs for all 911 centers in North America.
Then came December 13. The importance of delivering such psychological support to our first first responders was emphasized again far too soon in the face of yet another tragedy. Neither Jan nor the rest of our 911 WF Board could imagine what the next day after our December 12 meeting would bring: the devastating mass casualty event in Newtown, Connecticut. Here again in this third incident within two weeks en route to Christmas, came a heart-breaking convergence of mental illness, relationship distress, and fire arms bringing devastating trauma rippling out from the epicenter of family members, to first responders, to our communities and the nation as a whole. The response from citizens, churches, and our government has been generous in supporting the families, the field responders who came to their sides, and the Newtown community who aches with their friends and classmates. Dispatchers too have been remembered for the impacts their involvement has likely had on them. While the Foundation is not affiliated with 911 Cares, we commend that organization for reaching out immediately to assure that 911 professionals were supported with debriefing.
The 911 Wellness Foundation Board of Directors sends out our deepest condolences and prayers to all those affected by the public tragedies in Portland and Newtown. And to the 911 professionals serving in these cities and throughout the U.S. we pledge our ongoing efforts to support the 911 industry in creating a comprehensive, long-term approach to managing the unavoidable trauma and stress you face at the console in the line of duty. If you would like to send a card or care package to encourage the NY State Patrol and Newtown 911 professionals who served during this event, you can write to the addresses below.
To all of you who share our respect and concern for 911 professionals we thank you, encourage you to post your responses to this blog, and wish you a blessed and Merry Christmas!
Jim Marshall, Chair
Newtown ECC Dispatch Supervisor NPD dispatch, 3 Main Street Newtown-CT-06470
Attention 911: State Patrol 452A Bantam Road Litchfield-CT-06759.