A funny thing happened on the way to writing this article. I found myself looking at my computer, knowing I had the information I needed to put my experience and research onto paper, having a deadline looming (I usually work best under stress. Must be the first responder in me) and all I could do was just stare blankly into space. I was exhausted. Not physically. In fact, I could have gone to the gym and my muscles would have performed with all the vigor they usually do. It was a massive mental and emotional exhaustion brought on by days and days of continuous care of others. Ironically, I sat staring at the blank page trying to talk myself through the apathy and finish the article I wanted to write about first responders, particularly emergency communications operators and the effects of being carers.
Emergency communication operators are carers. This term isn’t as common in American English as it is across the pond and down under. In fact, I first came upon the term carer in an article written by an Australian psychologist who I had the fun privilege of showing around town when he came to visit a close friend and our agency founder. It means exactly how it sounds. Carers are people who work in occupations where they care for other people. I doubt anyone could argue that those of us who answer 9-1-1 calls and work police, fire and EMS radios do so because we care. If it was just about the physical tasks of the work, we would be tow truck dispatchers or switchboard operators for the phone company. We choose to work helping others. We care about our communities and the citizens and officers we assist. Most of us are invested and care deeply about doing the best job we can every time we put on our head-set. Although we are trained to be dispassionate and calm while handling other people’s emergencies, this doesn’t mean that we are unfeeling or that we are unaffected by the trauma we hear on a daily basis. We are not cold, uncaring auto-matrons pushing buttons. We often relate to our callers. We feel sympathy for what they are going through. Sometimes we want to cry or scream with them. We don’t because we are professionals, but we want to. It is precisely because of our roles as carers that we get emotionally, physically and mentally affected by our work.
Compassion fatigue has been described as “the cost of caring”. Individuals who work in occupations where they care for others run the risk of being profoundly affected. This can be due to direct exposure to traumatic events, such as that experienced by police officers, fire fighters and EMTs or secondary exposure which occurs when a person hears another talk about the trauma they have experienced. In my opinion, emergency communications operators experience a hybrid of exposure. True, we are not on-scene seeing the tragedy first-hand. The 9-1-1 operator is linked to the scene through hearing. We often hear horrific things happening, such as a shooting victim taking their last breath and succumbing to a sucking chest wound with their children screaming in the background. We have heard suicidal subjects give up and take their lives after we have been unable to convince them of another option or to even just wait until the officer gets there. Operators have heard people burn to death, sob hysterically in terror while locked in a closet during a burglary or blood-curdling screams from a person trapped in their crumpled vehicle after an accident. We are there and not there all at the same time. And believe me, an imagination can be a horrible thing to have in most traumatic situations. We are part of the scene yet unable to do anything physically to change anything. All we have are our words and our imaginations. On the other hand, when we are not dealing with direct trauma, we are listening to people tell us how they were victimized. It’s truly the best of both worlds when you’re an emergency communications operator.
Compassion fatigue occurs when there is profound emotional and physical erosion when carers are unable to refuel and regenerate. In compassion fatigue, emergency communications operators begin to indirectly experience the same trauma as their callers. They might experience depression, anxiety, anger or fear. The effect of this can result in feelings of apathy, ineffectiveness, headaches, gastro-intestinal distress and exhaustion.
Vicarious Trauma (VT) or secondary trauma also affects emergency communications operators. Vicarious trauma creates a profound shift in world view for the carer. I’ve written before about how becoming a 9-1-1 operator/dispatcher changed the way I look at the world around me. My experiences under the head-set colored how I saw people, places and things in a whole new hue. Most of it negative colors. The vicarious trauma I experienced at work began to change my beliefs. Like many who work in law enforcement I began to filter everything through suspicious. Every coach or minister had to prove they weren’t a child molester. Every person walking by my house had to prove he or she wasn’t a burglar. Ad infinitum. I truly picked up the feeling that everyone and everything was a threat.
The final effect of being a carer is burn-out. In my career, I’ve hear more about burn-out than either of the other two effects. The interesting thing about burn-out is that although it is common in public safety agencies, it is not isolated to people who care. Burn-out is created by having working in an environment with low-job satisfaction, powerlessness and the feeling of being overwhelmed. These are often described as toxic work environments and can exist in any career or occupation. Often, burn-out is experienced in emergency communications based on the internal stressors that occur, including shift-work, feeling like second-class citizens both to citizens and within the department, mandatory staffing, enormous amounts of policies and procedures and what often feels like arbitrary and unfair discipline. Many 9-1-1 operator/dispatchers love what they do but dislike where they work. Due to this, burn-out occurs. Also due to this being environmental, burn-out can be easily resolved unlike vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue which can be cumulative over time and require awareness and strategies to mitigate.
Emergency communication operators do what they do because they want to help people. Whether it’s the child on the phone or an officer on the radio, we want to use our skills to make a difference in the lives of others. Because of the unique characteristics of our involvement in traumatic events, we are often affected yet frequently forgotten about in trauma reduction efforts. We often never hear the outcome of a situation we handle let alone get to work through the symptoms of being directly affected by it. We must learn to recognize that we are affected by what we do. It is a natural part of our job. We must also learn to take care of ourselves and each other. Maintaining our physical, mental and emotional health is key. Give yourself permission to go for that run, take 30 minutes to meditate or get that massage. You can just say, “It’s work related.”