Dispatcher stress especially in an E-911 setting is something that is not accounted for in the manner that it should be. Personally I feel that proper stress management, incident debriefing, and insuring for the well-being of our personnel is very short-changed across the board in Emergency Services whether it’s Police, Fire, EMS, or Communications.
Having started out in the field as an EMT it was something that I had never considered that truly the first person “on scene” is the 911 Dispatcher answering the phone. Okay, so they’re not there physically… but they are just as mentally involved as those responders going to the scene and here are a few examples of why:
- The 911 dispatcher answers the phone for a woman entrapped in a structure fire, the dispatcher remains on the line attempting to help direct the fire crews to the woman but they’re forced to evacuate. The 911 Dispatcher remains on the line until the flames get to the woman and the phone line goes dead.
- The 911 dispatcher that answers the phone and hears the frantic mother crying because her baby isn’t breathing and they attempt to calm them enough to give CPR instructions over the phone that could keep the baby alive until EMS or a first responder arrives on scene.
- A 911 dispatcher working a police desk gets a call for Officer Needs Assistance but that is the entire transmission, they’re unsure of exactly where the unit is located and can only break the list down to three agencies based on the fact the transmission came in via VHF and not 800.
The dispatcher is responsible for the safety and assistance of the caller and the units in the field alike. They sometimes have a unique perspective into the emergency and are only able to hear the situation they cannot see or use their other senses as a responder in the field. Personally in medical emergencies especially that I have a harder time dealing with calls that go badly as a dispatcher than as a provider in the field. To me I can say that I did everything I could for that person when I’m in the field on the phone it’s not that easy…
There are many different things that can be done to reduce dispatcher stress, improvement of comfort of the dispatcher, and increase productivity. Many 911 centers have no procedures or facilities in place to manage Critical Incident Stress or simply provide a break for a dispatcher on an 8-12, maybe even 16 hour shift in communications. Then there are others who show great strides and even great pride in dealing with these issues.
While I did want to bring up these issues my discussion is more centered on what centers are doing to provide things to increase the comfort and reduce the stress of the dispatcher. One agency that I have found to do so well is the Kitsap County 911, in the state of Washington. Kitsap County 911 is also known as “CENCOM” and was the first combined Fire, Police, and EMS Dispatch center in the state of Washington. Please enjoy the video below: