Emergency Call Center Operators at Risk for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Article excerpt

The calls started coming into the 911 emergency dispatch center shortly after 1 a.m. April 6, as two men drove through Tulsa neighborhoods shooting pedestrians at random: people crying, questioning, worried about their own safety, giving rushed reports of fallen victims bleeding and unmoving.

Ultimately, police would arrest the men and charge them with killing three people and critically injuring two others. But the call center dispatchers at the time had no way of knowing how badly the victims were hurt or whether the shooters would end up in jail. Easter weekend began with violence and a lack of closure, Tulsa region dispatch supervisor Kimberly Faxon said.

"We get firsthand exposure when people are at their most traumatized - people screaming or gunshots in the background," she said. "But then we don't always know the rest of the story. ... I don't care how hardened you think you are to the job, you can't be exposed to that and not have it affect you."

Emergency dispatch managers recognize the potential harm of long- term emotional trauma and urge employees to seek counseling assistance, as has been the case with Tulsa dispatchers, Faxon said. The availability and quality of mental health care has dramatically improved in the 17 years that she's been with the call center, but it remains a challenge.

According to the American Psychological Association, post- traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is an anxiety problem that develops in some people after extremely traumatic events, such as combat, crime, an accident or natural disaster. People with PTSD may relive those events in the form of intrusive memories, flashbacks and nightmares. They may also avoid anything that reminds them of the trauma and have anxious feelings so intense that their lives are disrupted.

Call center operators handling 911 emergency calls can develop such symptoms even at a distance, according to a study by Northern Illinois University psychologist Michelle Lilly and former dispatcher Heather Pierce recently published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress. About one in 30 respondents reported symptoms severe enough to merit a PTSD diagnosis, they said, which suggests that the formal definition of traumatic event needs to be expanded by professionals in the field.

Regardless of whether the experience is identified as PTSD, Greg Giltner said he has seen enough examples of emotional distress to know that dispatchers need more support. Giltner, a sergeant and chaplain with the Oklahoma City Police Department, helps manage the central region 911 call center.

In both Oklahoma City and Tulsa, distressed dispatchers can immediately reach out to co-workers trained in peer support. The centers also have chaplains and psychiatrists on staff, backed up by an employee assistance program.

Giltner agreed with Faxon that employees are reluctant to seek out assistance because they see it as a weakness or social stigma. …