Just a Dispatcher?

Jan. 10, 2012
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.

Recently I was talking to a friend of mine about putting in an application for Volunteer Firefighter. I explained I attached a cover letter because the only occupational information the application asked for gave the impression, so apply put by my teenage son, I was a “desk jockey.” The cover letter allowed me to describe my firefighter training in the Navy and my years with the police department. My friend’s response, “But weren’t you just a dispatcher? Why would that matter?” Immediately, a familiar bristling started at the base of my neck. “Just a dispatcher? Just a dispatcher!!!” raced through my head and the old resentments resurfaced. Often police telecommunications operators seem to be dismissed in the realm of public safety. Many times they work critical incidents never knowing the outcome or working through the stress of hypervigilance. I believe 9-1-1 operators/dispatchers are unsung heroes with unique effects of their work on their physical, mental and emotional well-being. Behind the scenes does not imply not affected. Here are a few of the issues facing those on the other side of the phone/radio:

Irrelevant to Citizens

“Listen Lady, just send me an officer, ok? I’ll explain it all to him.” Even ten years later, I can still hear the tone in the man’s voice. I don’t remember the details of the call; why he needed police, what shift I was working, etc. What I do remember is the condescension in his voice. This man became the epitome of all the people I spoke with over the years who just plain dismissed me as a public safety element of any value. His tone implied he didn’t have to tell me anything. I just played a periphery role to him getting his needs met by the true law enforcement professional that he wanted. I was a phone operator, nothing more. Reacting from a place of pride for my occupation and an understanding of how difficult our job was and the training that went into it and the amount of personal sacrifice that came with sitting there that day to answer his call, I truly just wanted to hang up. That would show him just how insignificant I was. Of course, I didn’t, I am a professional after all, but I did spend the rest of the day hoping the officer was just as dismissive to him as he was to me. 

Dismissed by the Department

I wish I could say it is only the citizens that treat public safety communications operators as second class, but unfortunately that isn’t the truth. Dispatchers, as a group of professionals, are often dismissed by others in the department as well. Many officers see us as just something they have to put up with to do their job. Don’t get me wrong, there are many officers that have a deep respect for the person on the other end of the radio and the role he or she plays. It’s the ones that I’ve experienced in my life that refuse to treat dispatchers as professional equals that have created animosity and stress.  I, as well as most in this occupation, understand the difference in the roles telecommunications operators and officers have. We are not out there putting our lives on the line in the streets. We are safe behind our console in a usually well-protected building, where we can get up and have a snack or use the restroom when we choose. People are not spitting on us or trying to steal our gun. We’re not creeping down dark alleys trying to locate someone who would rather see us dead then go back to jail. What we are doing is trying to keep control of the chaos. We are the first first responders to citizens as well as officers who need us. These needs can run the gamut from information on when the sun sets so you can write a ticket for lack of headlights to please, please, please get me help. This guy is kicking the crap out of me and wants me dead. After a critical incident, if a dispatcher is even invited to the debriefing, I’ve found they often become an easy target for blame. Understandably, this is not helpful. Too often we’ve already beat ourselves up for not being able to control the outcome especially if one of our officers gets hurt or killed. 

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.

About the Author

Michelle Perin

Michelle Perin has been a freelance writer since 2000. In December 2010, she earned her Master’s degree in Criminology and Criminal Justice from Indiana State University. 

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