by An Anonymous Dispatcher
You’re just a dispatcher. You know nothing, and you see nothing, so it can’t bother you.
Really? Dispatchers don’t see anything. They should all be fine.
These are just some of the things many dispatchers are told during their careers. On the surface, these comments may sound reasonable, logical, and correct. After all, they spend eight to twelve hours a day answering phones and responding to the radio, how bad could it be?
We are inside, typically in a climate-controlled environment. We can utilize a restroom when needed. We don’t get stuck on long perimeters. And we lack the face-to-face contact with the community we serve. It sounds easy…it sounds like the secretary that so many like to define us as being.
Let me help clarify a few things for you. Those that say we don’t have face-to-face contact with victims are correct. Instead, we get them right after their incident occurs, their emotions running wild, shock setting in. Some callers are trying to provide pre-arrival assistance to a loved one, and others were just victims of violent and heinous crimes. Our callers are emotional, often angry, scared, and confused.
We have to guide them through essential questions to be able to send the most appropriate resources in a timely manner while being calm, confident, and compassionate. Responders to the scene need safety information and other critical details while enroute to a call, and we have to extract these details from individuals who just want the help to get there.
We, as dispatchers, hear things no human being is meant to hear. We hear parents discover and accept that their child is dead from SIDS, suicide, an overdose, or an accident.
Some of us have had to make notification to parents out of town…the sound a parent makes when they hear their child is deceased is like no other. It never leaves you.
We ask sexual assault victims to relive the most traumatic moments of their lives to obtain the details while they are fresh in their mind; which in turn, allows responding units to look for a suspect and start resources for the victim. Some calls, while talking to the reporting party, paint an image in our mind of the scene they are describing. Often this scene is more complex and gruesome in our minds than it needs to be. Our information and images are only as reliable as our callers…we depend on them to tell the truth (which can be a challenge for many).
Then there are the voices on the other side of the radio. Our units…they can be frustrating, irritating, but they are ours. It is drilled into us from the first day of training that their safety is our responsibility. Their physical condition when they start the day is exactly how they are supposed to return home to their loved ones. When one of our units gets hurt, we take it personally. This happens for a couple of different reasons.
We are typically blamed if something goes wrong…we didn’t get enough information, the information was correct, we didn’t relay the information fast enough. The fact that we depended on a distraught/angry caller who is often uncooperative is beside the point. We do what we can to obtain every ounce of pertinent information while we send our units into danger.
Danger….most of us understands that is where we are sending our units. We don’t know what will be waiting for them. Currently, because violence against law enforcement is off the charts and beyond unpredictable, we can do everything right and still have something go wrong.
The guilt that occurs when one of our units gets hurt can be overwhelming and have long-term implications on our mental and emotional health. Having one of our units scream and/or beg for help is traumatic. When they key up their mic and advise that they have been involved in an accident or been shot at or, heaven forbid shot, our bodies go into overdrive. The adrenaline rush can be an amazing ride until the crash.
For many dispatchers that have been around for more than five years, several issues start to impact their job performance, personal life, and personal health. Dispatchers spend so much time in overdrive with high adrenaline levels that our thyroid becomes irregular. We begin to over produce cortisol, which causes our bodies to become chemically unbalanced. If we do not seek help from a medical professional, the long-lasting effects can include chronic pain, stomach issues, fibromyalgia, chronic headaches or migraines, muscle tightness or fatigue. All of these issues can lead to other more complex and/or compounded medical problems.
Then there is the mental side of things. Lack of sleep, shift work, dealing with nothing but negative events on a daily basis, high stress all takes a toll. If we ignore that toll things build and build. Then there is the “not sworn, not born” attitude from the sworn staff. This makes us feel like we are beneath pond scum; we don’t matter, and are expendable. Depending on department management, they may actually tell us we are expendable. It’s a crush to our self-esteem and egos.
When you add the physical reactions to being a Dispatcher with the mental and emotional toll it takes many of us display signs of PTSD. However, we are not allowed to ask for help, if we do we are seen as weak and stupid. We are our own worst enemies. We become so busy trying to maintain the perfect front that we lose ourselves. Before we know it we are burnt out, miserable, utilizing less than healthy or productive coping mechanisms. Calls from the past come back to bite us in the rear. We begin to have nightmares, our bodies fall apart, we don’t sleep, and we don’t understand what is happening to us.
We may talk to our personal physicians, they tell us it’s all about stress. Eat better, sleep more, and all will be good. I hate to break it to them, but while that will help, it’s a band-aid. If we don’t face the demons of our past, our past will consume us. Our minds become our own worst enemies. Something eventually gives. We get forced into seeking help or we self-destruct. Suddenly, our work family disappears, the ones that claimed to be friends, the ones we spend more time with than our actually families. We get shunned, rejected, and kicked out of the emergency responder family. Our families don’t understand us, our work family is gone, and we are alone. Worse yet, we are alone with our own heads. We feel like failures, weak, and broken. Depression kicks in for many of us. Unless we have someone…just one person willing to throw us a life jacket we start to drown.
It is up to us to take care of each other. We can be part of the problem or part of the solution. If you notice a coworker struggling reach out, be a safe person for them to talk to (this means no gossip or criticism), help them find resources for what they are dealing with. One day, you may be on the top of your game, all is going well, and the very next day, out of nowhere, you can be at your bottom, struggling to survive. Don’t think this can’t happen to you. Life happens, nothing goes as planned. We are all as vulnerable to PTSD as the next person. It’s okay to be human; it’s okay to have emotions related to the bad we hear at work. Face them, accept them, deal with them so that you can move on and not become a statistic.
About the author: The anonymous dispatcher spent 15 years dispatching in a major metropolitan area. She was on the top of her game and in the prime of her career. She promoted quickly and had a ton of potential to make it to management. One day, she took a call that bothered her. The next week, she handled a series of incidents that were emotionally charged and took a toll on this dispatcher. Two short months later, one of her officers was involved in a major accident, and the following shift, one of her officers was shot. This was the beginning of the end.
This dispatcher went home and started drinking alone. Recognizing these actions to be a destructive path, she went to her doctor and was diagnosed with PTSD and anxiety. After a time, things started to improve until one night three critical incidents occurred that would haunt this dispatcher forever.
The physical symptoms began with chronic pain, migraines, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), followed by mood swings and insomnia. Eventually, the medical issues became unmanageable and she had to take time off from work. The dispatch center, her team, turned their backs on her. Eventually, she was forced out of her job on long-term disability, which then became medical retirement. Not one of her coworkers stayed in touch or showed any compassion to someone they called a friend and family. This betrayal compounded the grief and devastation of losing a career, goals, and dreams.
Today, she assists with teaching stress management skills to other dispatchers across the country and has set new goals and dreams.