A Common Thread Runs through Recent Tragedies: Kansas City Chiefs’ Belcher, Portland Oregon Mall, and Newtown

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.

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Canada’s Rick Galway Joins 911 Wellness Foundation Board

We are delighted to welcome Mr. Rick Galway, ENP,  the 2011/2012 President of the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) to the Foundation’s Board of Directors. Rick accepted Jim Marshall’s invitation during the 2012 Michigan NENA Conference in Lansing, Michigan on May 21 where he presented the Town Hall & State of the Association Address.

Jim and Rick have enjoyed numerous discussions during and prior to his term as president about their shared concern for the impact of psychological stress on frontline dispatchers. (Their most recent chat was filmed for 911ProTV and can be viewed by clicking here.) Rick’s support for the formation of the Foundation and for the pending NENA Standard on Acute, Traumatic, and Chronic Stress reflect on his commitment to the well-being of local 911 professionals and the entire emergency response community during his career in public safety–which spans 46 years, so far! That’s correct: we don’t believe Rick is done contributing significantly to the profession simply because he will officially wrap up his term as President of NENA on June 13 at the upcoming National Conference  in Long Beach, CA. In fact, with his acceptance of membership to our board we will be sure of that!

The Foundation is blessed to have a board whose members each bring rich and unique expertise all of which we will need to achieve our mission of fostering the health of 911 dispatchers in the Next Generation PSAP. Bringing a wealth of experience with him, Rick in particular plans to join with board member Craig Whittington (NENA President 2009/2010) to assist the Foundation in building and maintaining a robust and productive relationship with NENA. We believe the work of the Foundation will yield significant contributions to the work of NENA, APCO, and the National Academies of Emergency Dispatch (NAED) in their ongoing pursuit of best practice through industry standards and protocol.

So, we are grateful for Rick’s desire to help us build bridges to these lead 911 organizations. Beyond our hope for such contributions from Rick, we are most appreciative for the integrity, wisdom and compassion that are his signature within the 911 community.

Welcome, Rick. And thanks for making us an international board!

NOTE: Those wishing to correspond with Rick can reach him by email: rick.galway@skylinc.net.

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The Foundation’s 911ProTV Launched Today at Michigan NENA Conference

Today Co-producer Richard Thacker (Eaton County Central Dispatch, MI and fellow board member–911 Wellness Foundation) and I enjoyed the privilege of introducing Michigan’s 911 professionals to 911ProTV at the 2012 Michigan NENA Conference in Lansing. 911ProTV is the only online “TV Network devoted to educating, entertaining, and inspiring North America’s emergency telecommunicators.” (Note: if you visit the site, please be patient: we’ve only just begun and will be greatly improving and enriching the site after this conference!)

The network creates what we call an Online Living Room where the 911 family can join together to enjoy watching brief video messages created by their peers and subject matter experts on a variety of topics promoting health and peak performance.  The public and all 911 stakeholders tuning into 911 ProTV can gain a rare opportunity to enter inside the dispatcher’s otherwise-invisible world to learn directly from them what it is like to live their extraordinary daily lives responding to our emergencies.

The response to 911ProTV was overwhelmingly positive today as 911 frontline dispatchers, supervisors, directors, and state and international NENA leaders (including current NENA President Rick Galway and state NENA President April Heinze) took their turns in our director’s chairs, cameras rolling…  Yet as I’m sure these leaders would affirm, one 911 director who declined a video interview emphasized: “the most important people to sit here, for us all to listen to, are the dispatchers who sit the consoles in our centers everyday. All the rest of us are here only to support them. They, and the public we serve, are what it’s all about..” (To hear more from this director, visit 911ProTV and look for “An Interview with the Invisible 911 Leader. These videos will be posted soon.)

911ProTV is a non-profit project of the 911 Wellness Foundation and today these professionals affirmed how valuable this unique venue will become to tell their own stories, speak to key work issues affecting their careers, and their personal lives–particularly the incredible stress 911 telecommunicators face every day at the console. So if you’re a 911 professional, we hope you will sit back with a glass of ice tea and your laptop, and log on to 911ProTV.com. And then pick up your smart phone (or other) video cam and help build it for all to enjoy. Share a bit of your mind and your heart with your 911 colleagues. Feel free to “ad-lib” or choose from any of the following questions to “prime the pump”:

  • What is your funniest 911 moment?
  • What is your most inspiring experience as a 911 Pro?
  • What do you wish the public understood about 911?
  • What support do you most need from leaders to excel at your 911 work?
  • What encouragement would you offer to your 911 peers who may be struggling with the job?

Feel free to share on any topic you think will support the cause, and remember– funny is also really a good thing! (Just also remember, if your video is selected, many may be watching, so use your best judgment!) Together we will build 911ProTV as a resource that helps 911 Wellness Foundation achieve its mission to foster the health of our 911 dispatchers, and the success of our 911 centers in the Next Generation PSAP.

And to all the rest of you–the public and all 911 stakeholders, here’s your chance to thank, encourage or inspire our First first responders–those who may answer your next emergency call! We welcome your brief videos too. Just send them to rlthack@ymail.com. And, if you’re camera-shy but wish to support 911ProTV, you can still help. Just log on, enjoy, and leave your comments–and please post your response to this blog entry, too!

Thanks to all who have so quickly embraced 911ProTV. Peace and health to you!

Jim Marshall, Chairman–911 Wellness Foundation, Co-producer (911ProTV)

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Craig Whittington, ENP joins 911 Wellness Foundation Board

On April 19, Craig Whittington, ENP, 2009 President of the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) accepted an invitation to join the founding Board of Directors of 911 Wellness Foundation. Craig is currently Special Projects Director for Guilford Metro 911 (North Carolina). He has long shared a concern for the impact of stress on 911 professionals having seen the toll it has taken on friends and colleagues over the years. Craig stated “I have seen the effect…we have lost some of our best people–dispatchers who were sharp, committed, and passionate–then they became burned out. We can do something about this. I’m glad to join the board.”

In 2009 during his NENA presidency, Craig was instrumental in bringing the 911 stress issue to the forefront of the organization’s agenda by catalyzing the establishment of a Working Group addressing these stress risks.  In early 2012 the NENA Working Group on Acute, Traumatic and Chronic Stress submitted (for internal review) the nation’s first Standard on Comprehensive Stress Management for 911 Centers. The document sets the bar for a standard of care for 911 telecommunicators to protect them from the health impacts of work-related stress. It proposes that all North American Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs)”shall have comprehensive stress management programs for their personnel.” 

Welcome, Craig! We thank you for the contributions you’ve already made to uphold the health of 911 telecommunicators and, in advance, for sharing your experience and passion to support the mission of the Foundation!

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Message on NG911 Awareness Carried to International Gathering of 911 Professionals

Jim Lanier, ENP and fellow Foundation Board member joined me in presenting at the 2012 Navigator Conference in Baltimore, Maryland yesterday. Our topic, Exploring the Risks of Next Generation 911 emphasized the many potential benefits of NG911 for the public while urging the 911 industry to explore the potential psychological effects it could have on our 911 telecommunicators. Response to the presentation has been strong and we will continue while here in Baltimore to foster increased awareness of our 911 professionals about these concerns. The foundation’s position is that we support NG911 and hope to foster its success by protecting dispatcher well-being as they interface with it.

Thank you for taking time to read this short post. Your comments will be welcomed!

Jim M.

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Honoring National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week, April 8-14

Kim Matelski, Charlevoix-Cheboygan-Emmet Central Dispatch
Photography by Joni Hayes

The board members of 911 Wellness Foundation extend our profound gratitude to the nation’s emergency telecommunicators for their extraordinary service as our country’s First first responders.

Last year during this week celebrating dispatchers , I was asked to speak in South Carolina at the Charleston County Consolidated 911 Center. This year National Telecommunicator’s week brought me to the Saginaw County 911 Communications Authority. The city of Saginaw, Michigan was rated as the #1 most crime-ridden community in the nation from 2002 through 2010, per capita. Let’s just say that these 911 professionals have their work cut out for them! And they are up to the task.

As their leaders told me, if any group of emergency telecommunicators should be provided with training in management of traumatic stress, it is their people!  These 911 dispatchers field over 1,000 calls daily. And as you can imagine, they experience more calls involving shootings, stabbings, suicides, homicides, domestic violence and tragic death  within one month than occur in many communities within a year.

Public Safety Telecommunicators of Saginaw County 911 Communications Authority

As I sat in their 911 center watching them in action this Wednesday I was humbled and struck  with the fresh realization once again that the psychological demands of their work are phenomenal. Just the day before, within one 4 minute stretch, as my students joined me in the classroom to practice stress reduction techniques to buffer them from the impacts of such traumatic exposures, their coworkers received and managed two separate calls involving violent deaths.

The screaming of hysterical citizens and the labored breathing of officers in pursuit and at risk all flow into the headset of these telecommunicators who feel enormous responsibility to calm and assist all those involved. Can you imagine being the dispatcher sitting at that console?

More Dedicated Saginaw 911 Professionals. Note student in center still a bit stiff per need for more stress management training! (Actually, this carving honors the firefighters of Saginaw Fire Station #3, our training site.)

Yet, even as other 911 centers handle a less frequent flow of such emotion-packed violence under the headset, their telecommunicators answer “911” never knowing when that next unforgettable call will come. And it will.

It is so natural that we as citizens take their 24/7 availability for granted. 911 Emergency response is a luxurious, always available resource we simply touch our phones to activate. But at what expense to the quality of their personal lives do these dispatchers serve us? This question is at the heart of The Foundation’s mission to foster the health of every 911 professional through research, education, policy, and treatment.

As National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week winds down, let us as citizens and fellow 911 stakeholders all vow to make it the beginning of a more conscious gratitude for our 911 professionals. For every call managed well much credit is due–to the frontline dispatcher who answers your call, to their floor supervisors who back them and carry the burden of assuring that you receive the best possible response in your worst moment of life, and to their 911 center leaders who are in constant movement managing personnel, scheduling, budgets and untangling government bureaucracy and the complex web of evolving technologies that enable 911 to serve us with such remarkable efficiency.

911 dispatchers perform tasks that most of us could not endure emotionally; they are an exceptional group of professionals with very uncommon sense and abilities who are extremely hard to replace. So, most of our 911 centers are running low on staff, which places even more stress on these professionals who must frequently work mandatory overtime–and that means less time to recoup and to be with family. They could well use a bit of our thanks and encouragement to keep on keeping on!

So, the 911 Wellness Foundation urges you to google your local city or county 911 to find the address of your 911 center and send their staff a note of appreciation. And when your note arrives after National Telecommunicators Week, all the better– because as you can imagine, these invisible first responders typically feel forgotten and unappreciated the other 51 weeks of the year.

I consider it an incomparable privilege to serve these 911 professionals as a trainer and as Chairman of the 911 Wellness Foundation.  Thank you, 911 family for your incredible caring service to our nation! And to all 911 stakeholders who join us in honoring them, thank you for caring. Please consider leaving a response to this post to support our cause!

Jim Marshall

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911 Wellness Foundation Media Coverage re: Dispatcher PTSD

 Yesterday, 911 Wellness Foundation board member, Michael Armitage represented the Foundation in a news story on PTSD among dispatchers that aired in Northern Michigan, and featured LEELANAU COUNTY 911‘s  Emergency. Management Director Tom Skowronski,. We commend Tom and Michael and thank you for contributing this important knowledge to increase public awareness of the risks facing our 911 dispatchers. You can watch this news story by clicking on the link below. We invite your comments!


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