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Dispatcher's Emotional Box Bursting at the Seams

9-1-1, What is your emergency?"

"My son is trapped by the car."

The woman’s voice on the other end of the line was borderline hysterical. She was going to lose it at any moment.

"What is the address of the emergency?" I asked.

My fingers furiously flew over the keyboard. As she spoke the street address and name, I glanced at my ALI/ANI. It matched and I double-tapped enter to get the information to cross-over onto my computer.

"How old is your son?"

"He's four. Only four," she stated, the hysterics creeping closer to the surface. "My husband backed up. He didn't see him. Oh, my God. He's trapped. Please help. He's between the car and the garage by the wheel. I don't think he's breathing. Please help him. Please help him."

A predominately medical call, I quickly transferred her over to fire dispatch. I assured the woman help was on the way (I had send the information over to our dispatch for broadcast to any officer close by) and relayed the information I had to fire. As fire began questioning the mother, the distraught woman lost her fight with control. She began sobbing uncontrollably. As the officers and medics were on the way, I listened as fire gave the mother instructions and the mother continued to sob.

"His hair... His hair is covered in blood. There's so much blood," she said an eerie calm suddenly taking over her voice. An image of my son flashed into my head. A bubbly, blonde-haired four year-old full of life. I immediately tucked that thought and any emotion relating to it away into a mental compartment. This ability to compartmentalize allowed me to continue taking 9-1-1 calls day after day.

Mental Compartmentalization

After the recent Aurora theater shooting during “The Dark Knight Rises,” media praised the heroics of local emergency communications operators. 9-1-1 Dispatcher Kathie Stauffer explained to NBC that to remain calm and professional while handling traumatic situations, “You have to mentally break away. You can’t identify too much.” After the event was over, only then, did she allow herself to think about her own children.

Like other first responders, emergency telecommunications operators must detach from their emotions in order to not only complete the tasks their job requires in the moment but also to survive the work. During our work, we take any troubling thoughts, especially those that attempt to relate with the person on the other end of the line, and the normal feelings of sadness, anger, empathy and even compassion and tuck them away. While she handled call after call from terrified movie patrons that night, Kathie just did her job. She attempted to reassure people and comfort them. It was only after the phones stopped ringing and she hung up her head-set that the emotion flooded out from its carefully controlled compartment. She now allowed herself to think about her own children and as she related to NBC how she maintained her composure she allowed the tears to escape.

Coping with Trauma

Psychologists describe compartmentalizing as a coping mechanism that allows people to disassociate from normal feelings. Common application describes people who unconsciously tuck away feelings that create conflict with their values or beliefs so that they can act in opposition to them but this same psychological concept is performed day after day in 9-1-1 call centers around the world. To cope with what we hear, we have to disassociate from normal emotion. If I became hysterical right alongside that mother whose son was crushed by her husband’s car, I would be worthless in getting her the help she needed.

Consequences of Compartmentalization

Like Stauffer stated, remaining professional and calm requires us to compartmentalize. But what does that mean later? What happens to the operator after the call or after the thousands of calls he or she takes in a career? If a person compartmentalizes their emotion and doesn’t bring it back out to resolve it, the physical and mental consequences can be enormous.

People are in awe of what we do. They tell us so. “Wow, that must be hard work. It's got to be emotionally draining.” I doubt very many of us reply with, "Yes, it's really, really tough. At times, I get off shift and feel like I've been beat up. I have a hard time figuring out what to do with the excess ‘fight or flight’ energy. I'm exhausted not only physically from the shift work but also from trying to cope with the feelings that my work creates. Most of the time I feel like either breaking down into hysterical sobs, stopping my car in the middle of traffic and just shutting down or punching my hand through a wall." Instead, we minimize the impact our work has on us.

To be healthy, first responders need to open the door of the compartment, sort through what's there frequently and let it go. This house cleaning will keep us sane and human. If we don’t we remain filled with unresolved grief, fear, anger, sadness, as well as, vulnerability and helplessness. Locking the compartment creates a hollow and empty inside. We stop being able to feel in a normal fashion. Shutting down keeps us from having healthy relationships. Our relationships can be insincere and hollow. Eventually, our bodies and our minds stop being able to differentiate between times we need to compartmentalize for work and other times. 

Opening the Compartment

As professionals and first responders, we cannot react on emotion in the moment at work. We need to be able to compartmentalize. So, what do we do afterwards?

Debrief: Use those we feel professionally safe with to talk through situations. Be honest about how the event affected you emotionally. Talk about how you related to the incident in detail. By utilizing a safe person, a colleague or a supervisor who understands the work and that having emotions is not a weakness or a job liability, you can express your thoughts and feelings completely without worrying about being too graphic or transferring the horrors of our work to innocents, such as our spouse or friends. This doesn’t mean that some of us do not have friends or family who can be understanding and handle this sort of debriefing. Basically, talking through the feelings will help us deal with them in the open.

Journal: Writing thoughts and feelings down can help get them out of the compartment as well. Free write without judging yourself. Having words on paper allows us to look at feelings objectively and work through them.

Professional Help: If you feel your work is negatively impacting you and you’re having a hard time opening the compartment, seek out someone who can help you professionally. When we need help with our physical wellbeing, we seek out support from fitness professionals. Why not do the same for our mental wellbeing? Being, getting or staying healthy by working through the emotional job hazards of emergency communications is not a weakness. It’s an investment in ourselves and our careers.

As long as we’re working 9-1-1 lines, we will hear traumatic events unfold. We will be required to disassociate from normal human emotion to do our jobs well. What is important is for us to recognize is this as part of what we do and then deal with it after the crisis has passed. Opening up the compartment we stuff our feelings into is imperative for us to live happy and healthy lives. If we don’t, eventually those emotions start to seep out from underneath the door and the walls bulge and threaten to burst.


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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 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.