Public Safety Dispatchers: Disputes and Distress

By Sgt. Mark St. Hilaire.

The men and women who answer the calls into our agencies everyday don’t receive the respect from the front line public safety responders and the public like they should. They are sometimes treated like second class employees. “There I said it!”  How do I know this? I witness it several days a week when it’s my turn to work in the house and oversee the operation along with other duties.

Many agencies have non-sworn personnel answering and dispatching the emergency and service calls. I have realized this for 27 years, as I have been assigned to this duty. It is the busiest and toughest job in public safety. These people answer many more calls than what gets dispatched or referred to other agencies. Many calls are for alarms, wellbeing checks, suspicious persons or activities, vehicle crashes, directions, the police chief’s office. They also answer the frustrating questions during difficult moments. How do I know when a power failure occurs in my community, we receive the questions inquiring when they will go back on? What is more frustrating is when we inform callers that we don’t know and they don’t like the answer. More follow up questions along with more frustration. In my department these people dispatch the firefighters and the ambulance from the same location. They also work the front window assisting the public. Oh…Did I mention they answer the police, fire and regional public safety network radio communications too? I can attest that occasionally they may have some down time when it’s quiet but these men and women work and put up with a lot of friction from the public and within the agency.

Why do we have this unofficial battle within our agencies and sometimes “the air waves?”

As a LEO, I depend on these people for information and help especially when bad things happen. We all must interact with multiple personalities in our profession whether dealing with a demanding public or among our peers. Respect and consideration goes a long way. The shoe does fit on both feet. This includes front line responders and dispatchers.

I have a joke I’ve used for many years. I tell folks (the public) when I pick up coffee or a lunch for the dispatchers that I don’t want any barking dog calls today. The real truth is this: consideration for our co-workers is the right thing to do.

  • How would you feel if you were stuck inside a “fishbowl” for 8-16 hours?
  • Would you appreciate it if someone offered to pick you up a coffee or your lunch?
  • How are we supposed to help the public if we don’t help each other?

Is this the way all dispatchers are treated? No. I’ve observed many LEO’s going out of their way to take care of their dispatchers (sworn and civilian). In my friend’s agency, the police dispatch was in the Fire Alarm dispatch building. The orders were issued: no personnel were allowed in this building unless assigned there. My friend’s peers were pretty creative including the improvised drive up window to drop off their coffee and lunch from the cruiser in the parking lot. This is a great display of respect and consideration for each other in one of the poorest cities in Massachusetts. We are all facing reduced budgets for manpower and equipment.

This is the time we need to stick together.

Our dispatchers face similar stress related issues that front line personnel face. They are in different situations in which many times they are on the telephone with a caller listening and attempting to instruct them during a crisis. They may take the public safety professional’s call for help over the radio. In many of these situations they are helpless and endure listening to the pain of screaming, crying, physical assaults, gunshot and sometimes silence. They are witnessing and experiencing a part of the emotional tragedy we all face in some intense situations.

The Journal of Traumatic Stress reported on a study which may be the first of its type on dispatchers and emotional stress on the job. This is the first study about emergency dispatchers who may experience the trauma indirectly.

The study, conducted by Dr. Michelle Lilly of Northern Illinois University, surveyed 171 emergency dispatchers currently working in 24 states in the U.S. The dispatchers were asked questions about the type of calls and the emotional distress they endured as a result of these calls. They were questioned about their worst call received and they were asked to rate the type of calls that caused them distress.

  • Unexpected injury or death of a child-16% (The Worst)
  • Suicidal callers – 13%
  • Police officer involved shootings- 10%
  • The unexpected death of an adult-10%

Of the 171 participants, the average dispatcher surveyed was a white female about 38 years of age with more than 11 years of service.

The study noted that dispatchers experienced an elevated level of distress following the average of 32% on potential traumatic calls. 3.5% had symptoms of PTSD.

The study results show the need to provide dispatchers with prevention and intervention training and support services that all front line public safety personnel should be receiving. These programs help train all personnel with the techniques for handling emotional distress and daily stress reduction. This is a vital part of a good public safety health and emotional wellness program.

In a sad way, dispatchers are in our league. In a different perspective they are stressed like other public safety professionals. They deserve our respect and support too!

I’m asking you to take the time to mend the fence if it is needed. Communication is vital in our working relationships. Take some time to understand the duties these men and women carry out. Discuss ideas with them on how to make everyone’s job easier and more effective.

Your life may depend on them. They are the messengers who send in the Calvary when needed!

Originally published in Law Enforcement Today (www.lawenforcementtoday.com).

Sgt. St.Hilaire is LET’s police wellness contributor. He is a police officer in a Metro-west suburb of Boston, Massachusetts. He is a volunteer member of a regional C.I.S.M team. He can be contacted by confidential email at: markfromnatick@Gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter: @NPD3306 or Linked In. Sgt. St.Hilaire does not receive any compensation or consideration for any program, book or other resource that he recommends.

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