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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A Very Big Day for 911 Dispatchers and our Cause to Educate the Public!

A Very Big Step for 911 Dispatchers and this cause… Today, the national media covered perhaps the biggest story for dispatchers ever– a research study co-authored by Dr. Michelle Lilly and Heather Pierce, M.S.– a member of the NENA Working Group on 911 Stress. These researchers’ findings produced evidence supporting  the risks our first first responders face for experiencing serious distress and PTSD at the console. Their study confirms and extends the findings of Roberta Troxell’s 2008 study and supports comments offered by Jim Marshall, 911 Wellness Foundation Chairman, to the FCC in the matter of NG911 (see elsewhere on this blog).

This is a very significant advance for the Foundation’s cause of substantiating these 911 risks and educating the public and all 911 stakeholders to support the mental health of our nation’s emergency telecommunicators. We congratulate these  researchers and express our gratitude for their investment of time and effort to help reveal a challenge facing one of our country’s most critically important yet underestimated public service professions. We invite you to read this ABC news article and return here to share you comments. As the Foundation moves forward we are heartened by this news and hope you will also be moved to join us in our work. (See tab “Our Mission” to learn more.) JM

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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.

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Devoted to fostering the health of 911 professionals in the Next Generation

Welcome to the Foundation!

Have you ever wondered what it must be like to live the life of the frontline 911 dispatcher handling one emergency call after the next: imagine you’re the one at the “console” tracking info on five monitors, interacting via radio and headset with field responders, and with the hysterical mother. You listen as she sobs and you guide her in administering CPR to her breathless infant while also sending directions to  paramedics even though you already know in your gut this one isn’t gonna make it!–all this just after you handled a call from a suicidal teenager who said “good bye–I’m done” and hung up before you could help, and left your heart hanging out of your chest!

How would you feel sitting at that console? Would you want that job? Could you DO that job?

 This blog and the Foundation are devoted to serving the first First Responders in our emergency response system–the 911 dispatcher. I’m thrilled you’ve found us because we need you!

Whether you know it or not,  you are a “911 Stakeholder”— someone who has a vested interest in our nation’s 911 emergency services. You’ve chose the right time to visit our blog since yesterday, December 1 ,2011 our country officially launched itself on a journey, called Next Generation 911. To read more click here.)  “NG911” will change how you experience emergency help when you call 911 by enabling you to “call” 911 via texting, real time video (e.g, skype, smart phone) and other “evolving technologies”. 

NG911 will be great for you, the consumer–especially if your are hearing impaired, or find yourself in a crisis in which rich, timely information about the scene and those present is vital to rescue and medical help. And since these NG911 capabilities should boost dispatcher’s ability to assist in emergencies they too will hopefully feel more empowered as the chances for successful interventions increases–and that could mean  less stress!  For example, if the dispatcher can observe you adminstering CPR to your child, they can correct and guide you more precisely per the instructions. That’s certainly a good thing.

On the other hand, if we are to face the research on stress, we must also do our “due diligence” and face the possibility that NG911 will add MORE stress to the shoulders of our 911 dispatchers. Why/How?  (Okay, again imaginine yourself back at the console with that mother again.) Because you’ll not only hear the screaming, you’ll SEE the panicking mother and her lifeless blue baby–on the big monitor in the middle of your console via real time video from her smart phone or iPad.

This blog, 911 Wellness was created to join all 911 stakeholders in gaining awareness about the enormous health risks placed on dispatchers in the line of duty related to the immense psychological stress of their work–and how NG911 may, along with its benefits, increase stress and these risks for 911 telecommunicators unless we launch this new platform with great care.  

911 dispatchers (a.k.a. Public Safety Telecommunicators or PSTs) have long been underrated in a few big ways: in terms of the critical importance of the role they play in helping save all our lives when we call 911 in peril; in the intelligence, skill, and emotional strength their job demands; and, in psychological and physical toll emergency dispatching takes from the PST as a human being. Fortunately leaders within the industry and the mental health field are growing increasingly aware of how greatly we have underestimated dispatchers, and the high risk this places them at for stress-related diseases…

Afterall, if we dump more on our first first responders and this hard-t0-find/hard to train/hard to keep workforce burns out, who is going to answer your next call to 911–and how well will they do at helping save some you love?

So, this blog is for all of us–911 stakeholders–to gain the shared awareness we need about 911 stress and to help us direct our concern and skills into concerted efforts to fulfill the Foundation’s mission.

But specifically who are 911 stakeholders? Well, first is the citizen who depends on  911 for help in life’s most threatening moments; stakeholders also include all those who help bring these emergency services to the public–the 911 employees who operate our Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs, or 911 centers), along with the government leaders who regulate and oversee 911, the national associations who set 911 standards for PSAP operations and professoinal development, and the “vendors” who supply the 911 industry with the technology and training that enable the efficient, effective help we’ve come to expect when we dial 9-1-1.

 So now you know: you’re a 911 stakeholder. The question is: will you join us in supporting our PSAPs to keep our incredibly talented 911 dispatchers healthy so that they can continue taking amazing care of the rest of us–the public and our field responders as we enter the Next Generation of 911 sevices?

Tell us what you think with your comments! And we hope you’ll explore the rest of this blog and consider becoming a member of the foundation. Your email is also welcomed!Info@911Wellness.com.

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