Hazards of Being A 9-1-1 Dispatcher

We hear screams of terror and horrible tales of human suffering. We listen. We assist. We get help. We often empathize with our callers. We care and there are consequences.

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

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.”


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