Just a Dispatcher?

Often dismissed, treated as irrelevant by officers and citizens and dealing with hypervigilance, bureaucracy and lack of control, dispatchers face many stresses of the occupation.

Treated like a Cop, Protected like a Secretary

One of the things that used to get under my skin when I worked the floor was we fell under the same rules that officers did, but when it came to the group negotiating for our benefits, we were in the same category as other non-public safety services, like sanitation. This wouldn’t be that big of a deal, but as police employees, we had mandatory staffing, forced overtime, seniority-based scheduling bids, etc. So, while the officers had a strong association behind them negotiating in their best interest, we were lumped in with city workers who really had nothing in common with us except for who paid our salaries. Over the years, we tried to get the police association to extend to us, but it never materialized. 

Tethered Hypervigilance

Dr. Kevin Gilmartin, author of Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement, states bombardment of violence, unappreciativeness and negativity creates a stress reaction that leads to a physiological change. Although public safety operators do not see what is happening on scene, we create images in our minds. Along with these dark imaginings, we do not have any physical control over the scene. We cannot move people away from danger. We cannot stop the bleeding. We cannot tackle someone to prevent them from hurting others. All we can do is imagine and talk. We suffer from the hypervigilance, that physiological fight, flight or freeze, without the ability to do anything about the circumstances at all. To me, this creates the most amount of stress of the occupation. Every time that tone sounds as a call comes in, or the radio crackles to life, a small part of me tensed up waiting for the inevitable crisis. This stress lodged itself in my muscles and created the tingly feeling which shot from my stomach to my head. It caused the dryness and eventual metal taste in my mouth. I was part of a critical scene but disassociated. I could hear the screaming and the chaos. Often, I heard the gunshots or the gurgling of someone’s last breath as they choked on blood. I could hear the panic in an officer’s voice and the thud of the fight. I just couldn’t do anything about it at all except sit there, ears pealed, fingers tense—waiting.

Few would argue that public safety telecommunications work is easy. It requires a certain type of personality to handle the type of emergency situations that come in on the 9-1-1 phones and over the radio. It takes a strong person to hear negativity and the extent of human ugliness on a daily basis for years and years. Stress without closure and bureaucracy permeate the occupation. Often citizens and officers discount your importance and make you stop and wonder, “Why am I doing this again?” Having done the job and seen the role these first first responders have in saving lives and helping control chaos, I know there is no such thing as “just a dispatcher.”


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About The Author:

Michelle Perin has been a freelance writer since 2000. Her credits include Law Enforcement Technology, Police, Law and Order, Police Times, Beyond the Badge, Michigan State Trooper, Michigan Snowmobiler Magazine and Chief of Police. She writes two columns a month for Officer.com. Michelle worked for the Phoenix (AZ) Police Department for almost eight years. In December 2010, she earned her Master’s degree in Criminology and Criminal Justice from Indiana State University. Currently, Michelle works as the Administrative Coordinator at Jasper Mountain a residential psychiatric facility for children. In her spare time, she enjoys being the fundraising coordinator for the Lane Area Ferret Shelter & Rescue, playing her bass, working on her young adult novel Desert Ice and raising her two sons in a small town in Oregon.

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