Dispatcher PTSD: Actions Public Safety Leaders Can Take & Self-Care

Women with PTSD experience all these sentiments in the word cloud shown.
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Dispatchers face a series of stressors that affect mental health. Public safety leaders can take action to address dispatcher PTSD and traumas — while self-care should become a workforce routine.

Each year in April, communities and agencies recognize the hard work of dispatchers during National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week. But it’s not just the hard work that should be recognized, it’s also the personal toll the job can take. According to studies, dispatchers face post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), vicarious trauma (aka, compassion fatigue) and other mental health effects.

“As a dispatcher experiences continual and overwhelming volumes of emotionally charged calls, the body, mind and spirit respond in ways to protect and help the person cope,” former dispatcher Melissa Mann wrote for PoliceOne.com in an 2016 article about the unique stresses of dispatching at emergency call centers (ECCs) or public safety answering points (PSAPs).

Answering the line and hearing gunfire, beatings, sometimes silence and crying, a dispatcher is the first responder. Dispatchers hear callers take their last breaths and often a baby’s first cry,” wrote Mann.

According to the Journal of Traumatic Stress, the worst calls for dispatchers to cope with are:

  • Unexpected injury or death of a child
  • Suicidal callers
  • Shootings involving officers.

Fear, helplessness or horror are just some of the potential emotional responses that come with the job and can have lasting effects.

According to the Northern Illinois University study conducted by Dr. Michelle Lilly, 32% of 911 calls received can create high stress in public safety telecommunicators.

2 Actions ECC Leaders Can Take

“Cumulative stress can affect work performance, work attendance, personal relationships and social relationships, in addition to presenting a multitude of physical manifestations,” according to Mann.

It behooves ECC leaders to recognize the signs and symptoms of PTSD, according to an Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials International (APCO) mental health download produced following the Lilly study.

  • Is the dispatcher exhibiting extreme anxiety after a call or secluding themselves unusually from other employees?
  • Ask, are they having flashbacks or nightmares about a call, or are there intrusive thoughts about a call as they go through their usual daily activities?

The second action is to provide peer support — before the end of the shift. “It does not have to be the entire staff talking; it can be just the affected telecommunicator and a supervisor or CTO,” APCO advises.

APCO also recommends each agency provide access to a trained Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) team after a first responder death, dispatcher death or mass casualty incident.

Dispatcher Self-Care

Physical symptoms of vicarious trauma that may not be obvious to public safety leaders but may be recognized through dispatcher self-care are:

  • Exhaustion
  • Insomnia
  • Increased susceptibility to illness
  • Increased use of alcohol, drugs or carbohydrates
  • Increased anger and irritability
  • Impaired ability to make decisions

“Self-care is an important part of stress management and should be a routine part of healthy living for every emergency 9-1-1 dispatcher, according to Kim Rigden writing about dispatcher stress management for the Annals of Emergency Dispatch & Response.

Practice self-care to manage stress every day:

  • Sensible Eating
  • Time to Enjoy Life
  • Rest and Relaxation
  • Exercise and Education
  • Social Support of Family, Colleagues and Friends
  • Satisfying Expression of Self and Spirituality

Explore more resources in the Health & Wellness Resources section on the APCO website.

Read our related dispatcher week coverage:

3 Ways to Recognize Dispatchers During Public Safety Telecommunicators Week

About the author

Andrea Fox

Andrea Fox

Andrea Fox is Editor of EfficientGov.com and Senior Editor at Lexipol. She is based in Massachusetts.