Not only was April 14-20, 2013, a traumatic week, it was National Public Safety Telecommunications Week. We should say thank you to the people who are there to take our calls when we need help.
Originally, switchboard operators handled emergency calls. Then callers dialed numbers directly...a different number for each police, fire, EMS agency. In 1937, the 999 emergency phone system began in the United Kingdom. "In the United States, the first 911 call was placed in Haleyville (Alabama) on February 16, 1968," (PoliceOne.com).
The 911 system gradually spread to most places in the U.S. While many locations have the enhanced E911, some locations still have no 911 service.
Emergency operators take many calls of every variety. "In a 25-year career in a metropolitan area, the call total can be around a million...Many are mundane, many are a glimpse into hell," (Policeone.com).
Keep in mind that the operator/dispatcher has no visual on the scene. He/she must imagine what is happening, try to calm frantic callers and officers, wait patiently during the silences, and sometimes dive into the next call without knowing how the last was resolved. They hear fear and chaos on the other end of the phone or radio but can't physically do anything to end the emergency.
"Being a 9-1-1 operator/dispatcher is overwhelming. There are half a dozen screens, immense amounts of information, beeps and chirps and whatnot in our ears that all mean different things, codes to remember, directions and locations, names, call-signs, jurisdictional lines, policies and procedures, etc., etc., etc," (Officer.com, 1-9-2013).
Listen to a series of recorded calls and radio transmissions of a shooting in progress that occurred in Glendale, California (Select "Glendale Shootout Part 1" and "...Part 2"). Multiple reports of a man shooting a weapon from inside his apartment flood the call center. First, callers report hearing about 20 shots followed by more and more. Then a series of radio transmissions with officers describes a shootout with the gunman.
Public safety operators are the cruicial first step to any emergency response, yet they are often unappreciated by the public and the officers they dispatch.
According to Jeff Troyer, Executive Director, Calhoun County 911 Consolidated Dispatch Center (Michigan), "Less than 1 percent of the population can actually do this job," he said. "It's not an easy thing to be able to do. It's an environment where multi-tasking is needed, and a position that takes multi-tasking to a whole other level," (Advisor-Chronicle.com).
In what may have been the fist study looking at PTSD among 911 dispatchers/operators, 300 dispatchers were questioned about their worst calls and the effects of stress (Chicagotribune.com). Their most difficult calls are listed below:
- 16.4% Unexpected death/injury of a child
- 12.9% Suicidal callers
- 9.9% Officer involved shooting/unexpected death of an adult
Although dispatchers only visualize the scenes described to them by others, they face many of the same emotional distresses that officers experience on scene. "Study respondents experienced 'one or two symptoms' of PTSD while as many as 3.5 percent had symptoms serious enough to qualify for a full PTSD diagnosis," (Chicagotribune.com).
Regardless, the call taker must remain composed. He or she must use techniques to try to calm the person on the other end of the line. Operators and dispatchers jump from one unique call to another.
"We get calls from parking complaints and barking dogs and then you have the extremes — suicides, shootings, homicides — everything you hear on the news," said Jim Jones, training coordinator for Tri-Com Central Dispatch in Kane County, Illinois, (Chicagotribune.com).
Call takers may want to reach through the phone to comfort a terrified child or help barricade the door for a trapped victim. But they can only fight crimes and crises with words.
"[They] suffer from the hypervigilance, that physiological fight, flight or freeze, without the ability to do anything about the circumstances at all. To me, this creates the most amount of stress of the occupation...9-1-1 operators/dispatchers are unsung heroes " (Officer.com, 1-10-2012).
Like other emergency personnel, their shift may go from bordeom to chaos in a moment. We cannot dismiss the importance of their role in public safety.
For those who ask the questions and dispatch the helpers when we call 911--Thank you!
- Boston EMS, "Listen: 911 Call for Aid of Boston Marathon Bombings," CBSnews.com, 4-15-2013.
- Investigation Discovery, "Call 911 Videos: Glendale Shootout Part 1" and "Part 2," Discovery.com, (accessed 4-18-2013).
- Kellogg, Corinne, "A Day in the Life of a 911 Dispatcher," Advisor-Chronicle.com, 2-24-2013.
- KMOV.com, "911 Calls Released in West, Texas Explosion," KMOV.com, 4-20-2013.
- McCarthy, Jack, "Feeling the Stress of the Job," Chicagotribune.com, 6-6-2012.
- Perin, Michelle, "911 Call Takers are Behind-the-Scenes Heroes," Policeone.com, 4-16-2013.
- Perin, Michelle, "Just a Dispatcher?" Officer.com, 1-10-2012.
- Perin, Michelle, "Training a Dispatcher," Officer.com, 1-9-2013.