911 Dispatchers May Experience PTSD

911 dispatchers have a very high-stress job, fielding calls about emergencies and talking callers through the first steps before police and firefighters arrive. In some cases, however, the stress can be extremely intense. Dispatchers are often put in a position of hearing a caller describe a life-threatening situation, without a way to physically help them.

A recent study explored whether 911 dispatchers might be at risk for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) because of the trauma that they experience through their jobs fielding emergency phone calls. Though the dispatchers do not visually witness the trauma, they may hear situations that cause excessive trauma.

The study, published in a recent issue of the Journal of Traumatic Stress was conducted by researchers at Northern Illinois University by Michelle Lilly, a psychology professor, and Heather Pierce, a research associate and former 911 dispatcher married to a police officer. The research examined the psychological trauma experienced by dispatchers from afar.

Lilly explains that while many people think of dispatching as a stressful job, it’s not often viewed as traumatic. However, when Lilly and Pierce conducted a survey of 171 dispatchers across 24 states, they found that the experiences were very traumatic.

The survey asked respondents to describe the worst calls they had handled. The dispatchers provided information about horribly traumatic situations in which they struggled to help someone in a crisis, but without being able to leave their desks.

Examples of the situations encountered by the dispatchers were unsuccessfully trying to talk someone out of committing suicide, hearing the suffering of a gunshot victim, or walking a parent through CPR with a drowned child.

The participants responding to the survey were predominant white females with an average age of 39 and approximately 12 years working as a dispatcher. The dispatchers said that their most traumatic calls were ones in which they attempted to help children in danger or needed to send emergency personnel that they knew personally into a dangerous situation.

The researchers analyzed the surveys, which detailed calls that could cause feelings of helplessness and horror that are associated with the types of traumas that cause PTSD. The study showed that 3.5 percent of the participants had experienced symptoms that would likely qualify for a diagnosis of PTSD, according to Lilly.

One problem for dispatchers is that they are not able to physically help the caller. While many first responders, such as firefighters and police officers, have the opportunity to physically help, dispatchers are not only chained to their desks, but often don’t hear the outcome of the situation.

One possibility for alleviating some of the unexpressed stress that occurs for dispatchers is to include them in the debriefing following an especially stressful situation. In addition, giving dispatchers a chance to talk about a difficult call may help others identify whether a level of stress was experienced that could result in trauma.