Denise Crosby: Crisis calls take personal toll on 911 dispatchers
By Denise Crosby firstname.lastname@example.org March 31, 2012 4:14PM
A dispatcher works at the SouthCom Combined Dispatch Center in Matteson. | File photo
Updated: May 2, 2012 8:09AM
For 10 years Heather Pierce was the steady voice on the other end of a 911 call.
Throughout that decade — five years with Ken-Com Public Safety Center in Yorkville; another five with Tri-Com Central Dispatch now in St. Charles — she calmed the hysterical, gave advice to the desperate and helped those in crisis work through their emergencies.
Two calls that will forever stick in her mind: an officer-involved shooting; and the night she helped a distraught elderly man through CPR after his wife collapsed in their kitchen.
The offender in the first case died, as did the elderly woman. But in neither incident — nor the hundreds of other emergencies she dealt with in that steady voice — did Pierce have the time, or the professional support, to process her own feelings.
The same was true for her peers, most of whom were women. Phones continued to ring; police scanners chattered. But no matter what was going on, the job requirement was to stay cool, calm and in control for that next call coming in.
Only, there’s a price to pay. Just as everyone now acknowledges that indirect tobacco smoke is harmful to your health, Pierce, a 39-year-old Yorkville wife and mother of three, saw and felt the effects of exposure to indirect trauma.
So when she became a research assistant at Northern Illinois University after picking up her undergraduate degree in psychology, she went to her professor, Michelle Lilly, and asked about pairing up for a study on the effects of post traumatic stress disorder in 911 dispatchers.
Lilly, whose specialty includes PTSD among victims of domestic violence, agreed. And on Thursday — 18 months later — their findings were published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress.
While PTSD is an anxiety disorder often associated with combat veterans or frontline emergency workers like police officers and firefighters, this report reveals the extent of distress experienced by emergency dispatchers. The two researchers had to start from scratch because there was little in the way of compiled data.
From her 10 years in the field, it didn’t take long for Pierce to locate 171 responders from 24 states to take part in the 500-question survey. Most were women, who are double the risk of developing PTSD, a gender marker that needs to be studied more thoroughly, said Lilly.
The most commonly identified worst calls, according to the survey, were the unexpected injury or death of a child, followed by suicidal calls, shootings involving officers and calls involving the unexpected death of an adult.
The survey also showed dispatchers experiencing high levels of fear, helplessness or horror in nearly one-third of traumatic calls.
Pierce and Lilly, who lives in Glen Ellyn, hope their research work will contribute to a current debate over how trauma is defined; and they plan to conduct a second survey that focuses on intervention and prevention.
About a year ago, after Naperville police officers were involved in a fatal shooting, the department held a counseling session by the Northern Illinois Critical Incident Stress Debriefing Team, not only for officers but also the dispatchers who were working the night of the shooting.
Lilly calls that response “very forward thinking.” In most cases, 911 employees receive little or no training on how to handle stress, she noted, nor is there support in place to help them if they are experiencing struggles.
Both researchers said they were a bit surprised more respondents were not battling PTSD, but that those affected could have left the profession. There’s also the likelihood some refuse to acknowledge it.
One of the symptoms, it turns out, is denial.
Those trying to avoid the issue, says Lilly, “are the ones most likely wrestling with it.”