By Elizabeth Belmonte, Anne Camaro, D. Jeremy Demar and Adam Timm
How does one know that the effort exerted to help someone else was worth it?
Speak to any 911 telecommunicator, and they’ll be able to describe several situations in which they knew their efforts made a difference – when they provided support over the phone to a woman assaulted by her husband, for example, or when they helped a son resuscitate his dying mother through life-saving CPR instructions.
“911 telecommunicators are the counselor to a woman in need, faithful advisor to a man with nowhere to turn, and crime-stopping vigilante, all in a day’s work.”
While moments like these can mark high points in one’s 911 career, there’s also a dark side to the caregiver role. Being compassionate and empathetic are not without their own additional costs, and this weight can get heavy over the course of a career.
In April 2012, Dr. Michelle Lilly published one of the first studies on 911 telecommunicators in the Journal of Traumatic Stress. Entitled “Duty-Related Trauma Exposure in 911 Telecommunicators: Considering the Risk for Post-traumatic Stress,” the study described the occurrence of PTSD symptomatology in telecommunicators, showing that dispatchers are essentially as at-risk for PTSD as their police officer and firefighter counterparts.
The Cost of Caring
The heaviness of the telecommunicator’s role becomes notable within the first few years of taking on the position. While most new 911 dispatchers have a strong desire to make a difference in the lives of people who call, and believe this to be possible, this altruistic viewpoint is not long-lasting as the realities of everyday emergency requests take their toll.
As the stark reality sets in – that most calls and most broadcasts don’t offer the opportunity to help in a tangible way – emotional fatigue can become a challenge. Signs of burnout appear. The job isn’t as fun or rewarding as it once was. A new normal of indifference emerges, leading many telecommunicators to start counting down the days to retirement.
This is the slow downward spiral of compassion fatigue. First coined by Dr. Charles R. Figley in 1995, the term was used to describe the “cost of caring” felt by mental health professionals in the field of social work. Specifically, compassion fatigue is defined as a state of tension and preoccupation with the victims of trauma by personally re-experiencing the traumatic events.
Compassion fatigue is a function of bearing witness to the suffering of others, something 911 telecommunicators do every day.”
Research shows that 14.5% of 911 telecommunicators report feeling the symptoms of compassion fatigue sometimes, often or very often. Respondents also reported feeling burnout a few times during the past 30 days, while reporting only a moderate-to-low level of overall happiness, all of which can add up to gradual but distinct changes in the way telecommunicators see the world, think about people, and their mood in general.
The Family Connection
Yet, no studies of the telecommunications industry thus far have explored whether the above effects are felt at home, and to what extent. Our study sought to understand the perceived changes family members and close acquaintances notice throughout the telecommunicator’s career.
The study was conducted in the summer of 2019 via an online survey that reached a national audience of 911 professionals’ families and friends. The survey was conducted anonymously, and the link was shared through e-mail, social media and different industry publications.
There were a total of 498 responses to the survey:
- 203 responses from spouses or partners,
- 84 responses from sons or daughters,
- 67 responses from parents,
- 55 responses from siblings,
- and 87 responses from “other” close family members or friends of 911 telecommunicators.
The respondents were asked to provide the number of years their family member or friend has been a telecommunicator:
- 13 respondents stated less than one year,
- 82 reported one to five years,
- 122 reported five to 10 years,
- and 195 reported more than 15 years on the job.
With the survey results, the following questions were explored:
#1 Is there a relationship between time on the job and the types of mood changes noticed in the dispatcher?
Overall, most respondents (96.4%) reported noticing mood changes in their 911 family member.
Family-perceived dispatcher mood changes tended to increase with longer tenures, being most pronounced among dispatchers who had 10+ years on the job.
While there was no statistically significant association between the types of family-perceived mood changes and the dispatcher’s years of service, the findings do show a borderline strong association between withdrawal from social activity and length of time on the job.
Moodiness, irritability or anger tended to increase more for dispatchers who had worked 5+ years (13.4%). Moodiness, irritability or anger also tended to be more prevalent within each category of time on the job, except for those who had worked 1-5 years, where lack of energy was the main family-perceived change. Family members perceived dispatchers who had been on the job for <1 year to feel mainly overwhelmed (17.6%).
#2 Is there a relationship between time on the job and how often family members notice dispatcher stress; does it increase/decrease with time?
Overall, the majority of respondents (82.7%) reported noticing their 911 family member coming home stressed after a shift. Although not statistically significant (p=0.071), the frequency of family-noticed dispatcher stress per week increased as the number of years on the job increased.
The predominant stress frequency was 1-2 times per week (38.9%), which remained consistent within each group of time on the job, except for those who had worked <1 year. For the majority (53.8%) of dispatchers who had worked for <1 year, family members tended not to notice this stress.
#3 Is there a correlation between time on the job and dispatchers “lashing out” at their family members?
Overall, a significant number of respondents (41.3%) reported their 911 family member lashing out. Although the probability of a dispatcher lashing out at their family members increased with years on the job, this association was not statistically significant. The probability of a dispatcher lashing out stayed almost constant for dispatchers who had 5-10 years on the job, then increased substantially for those who had worked 10+ years.
#4 Is there a relationship between time on the job and whether family members experience anxiety over the stress brought home from work?
Overall, the majority of respondents (71.4%) reported feeling anxious because of the stress brought home by their 911 family member, with 17% feeling anxious “often” or “regularly.” Although not statistically significant (p=0.722), the frequency of family members experiencing anxiety over the stress brought home from work increased as the number of years on the job increased. The anxiety experienced was steadily more infrequent, though, with increased number of years on the job.
#5 Is there a relationship between type of family member and types of mood changes perceived?
Finally, all but four family-perceived dispatcher mood change types (withdrawal from activity, depression, general anxiety and agitation, and feeling overwhelmed) were significantly associated (statistically) with the type of family member. Association with a spouse was dominant, followed by a child, sibling and parent.
The data collected in this study shows that telecommunicators are indeed bringing home stress in the form of mood changes and social withdrawal, and that this stress is negatively impacting both friends and family members.
It also provides yet another dimension to the ongoing personnel shortages comm centers are experiencing nationwide.
Yet, while these numbers may seem bleak, this isn’t a hopeless situation; in fact, there are many things emergency communications leaders can do today to start mitigating these trends, especially since, as other studies have shown, a lot of these symptoms are exacerbated by controllable variables, like the stresses of shift work, lack of managerial support and other organizational issues.
The role of the 911 telecommunicator will never be easy, but it can certainly be made more sustainable.
Learn more about how 911 leaders can help make comm centers better places to work: