Most of us are sympathetic toward the physical, psychological and emotional stress that work puts on first responders. They see it all. From the gruesome ten-car pile up on the interstate to the heartbreaking unexpected death of a child, and everything in between.
But what about the unseen first responders? Those who take the calls before the paramedics, police officers and firefighters even arrive on scene. What about our 911 operators?
Studies have shown that even though operators aren't on scene at the tragic events to which they dispatch emergency units, they're still effected by the constant crises they try to manage every day. The emotional and psychological trauma often felt by dispatchers can be overwhelming, numbing and potentially debilitating, sometimes to the extent of being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
In an interview with ABC News, Brooklyn Mundo, a 911 operator in Florida, said, "Your body starts to live in crisis mode because you're always dealing with the crises of other people. I didn't realize it right away, but over time I noticed that I was almost getting number where it was difficult for me to have a soft heart to the people I really care about."
Brooklyn Stabile, a former dispatcher, wrote an article published by The Washington Post, about the years of experience she spent on the other end of emergency phone calls, and the effect it had on her life.
"I would be lying to you if I said that operators never become complacent after repeated exposure to death. Sure, I’ve never witnessed a death with my eyes. But my ears have a lifetime of stories," said Stabile.
"I spent my non-working hours feeling anxious or paranoid; after all, I’d seen the underside of my community. After three years, I grew fearful that I would have nothing left to give to anyone outside of work – friends, family or my fiancé. I remember watching “Conspiracy Theory” and going into a panic attack because a minor detail triggered a flashback to a call."
Steps are being taken by the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) to help those in 911 jobs. NENA recommends that emergency dispatch centers provide eight-hour courses designed to help employees recognize and cope with the challenges of stress.
Counseling and debriefing are also available to dispatchers, although these services aren't used by everyone.
Although we hope you never have to call to 911, in case you do, remember the operator you contact is another person, too. Their goal is to help you through your crisis, so you can get the assistance you need, as quickly as possible. So let's help them meet their goal, without adding unnecessary stress or trauma to their lives.