PTSD and the Emergency Dispatcher

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), commonly linked to soldiers in battle or emergency response personnel who experience profound trauma or who witness carnage and death, affects 911 dispatchers, too.

Exposing the Vulnerability of Emergency Dispatchers to PTSD

Although 911 dispatchers do not see the emergency situation, what they hear (and imagine) may make them just as vulnerable to PTSD as first responders on the scene. Consider that 911 dispatcher may hear some of the most disturbing sounds throughout their day, from the anguished cries of a mother who witnessed the death of her child to the final sounds from a dying gunshot victim, and it comes as no surprise that these emergency communications professionals may be just as traumatized by an event as if they were there.

Michelle Lilly, a psychology professional at Northern Illinois University, described 911 dispatchers as a “population of people who are routinely exposed to events that should be considered traumatic.” Lilly, who co-authored a book about the psychological impact of being a crisis dispatcher, went on to say that people often think of an emergency dispatcher job as being stressful, “but not really traumatic.”

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Lilly and her associate Heather Pierce analyzed surveys completed by 171 emergency dispatchers in 24 states. The survey asked emergency dispatchers to describe the worst calls they had taken. Many of the worst experiences involved endangered children or when they had to send first responders into harm’s way. For example, one emergency dispatcher described the horrible experience of talking parents through CPR after they found their child had drowned in a pool.

Lilly said that these types of situations often result in feelings of helplessness, fear, and horror to the emergency dispatcher. If these feelings go unaddressed, they could set the scene for PTSD. In fact, Lilly found that 3.5 percent of the respondents reported symptoms that she felt were severe enough to qualify for a PTSD diagnosis.

The Importance of Addressing Symptoms and Providing Resources

Because of the high level of responsibility associated with the job of an emergency dispatcher, it is important to recognize the signs of PTSD and receive help immediately. Not addressing symptoms of PTSD may result in problems with work and with family and often results in conflicts both in and out of the workplace. More serious implications may include alcohol abuse and suicide.

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Emergency dispatchers should be debriefed following a highly stressful incident, and proper training in stress management is also very important for these professionals.