9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Friday, March 20, 2009

Calls That Haunt Us: Don't Become Another Victim

Article from Emergency Number Professional Magazine, Sept. 2008
Written by Michelle Perin who worked as a police telecommuications operator with the Phoenix AZ Police Department for eight years

On Easter Day, I worked an emergency radio channel. Assigned to second shift, I wore my white Easter dress, having come in after Mass. My screen beeped informing me of an incoming priority one, "hot" call: a drowing. I thought, "That sucks." Although our emergency communications center only handled police emergencies, we always assigned an officer to drowning calls. As I read the call to the responding officers, sadness flooded me. A five-year-old boy had fallen into the family pool and wasn't breathing. My son was five. I did my job, got the officers on-scene and moved on to other calls. But my thoughts kept going back. Finally, my closure stress got the most of me and I dialed fire dispatch to ask about the boy. "He died," fire dispatch said. "He should've known how to swim." My sadness turned to anger and it was all I could do to not start screaming obscenities into the phone. Instead, I told him judgment has no place in our work and hung up. I asked to be relieved for a run down the hall. In the bathroom stall, I cried. My son couldn't swim either. He just refused. All I kept thinking was what if that were my son dead on Easter and all the caretakers could do was judge him? After 15 minutes, I pulled myself together and went back to work. The call was all I could think about for days. Finally, it began to fade, but years later it still brings tears to my eyes.

Everyone who has picked up an emergency telephone or put on a dispatcher's headset has had a call that affected them more than the rest. Just the idea that a person can remember a specific incident in the ocean of calls supports this. A 911 operator working for a big city often takes 200 calls in a shift. If they work four shifts a week with three weeks of vacation, they easily can take 196,000 calls in five years. If you ask an operator which call stands out for them most will answer right away, often giving the day, the year, the time, the type of call and the details. We may not be at the scene, but the toll of helping people affects call takers and dispatchers as well. Sometimes not being there is part of the problem.

When a person calls 911, they need help. Most of us do not feel comforted by the phone no matter who is on the other end. It is only an electronic object sending voices through space. Complainants want a physical person there doing something. As a dispatcher, you share the trauma with the person but you can't "really" help. It's almost like you are a ghost. This gives many calls that eerie feel. Add to that not knowing how the call ends and you have a sorrowful, creepy event stuck in your mind.

No doubt the calls that haunt us are stressful. According to Ellen Kirschman in I Love a Cop, they fall into the critical incident stress catagory. They can also be traumatic, but often they are just something we feel sad thinking about. Kirschman recommends two general phases on the road to recovery: stabilization and working through. Anyone who has experienced a stressful call can benefit from steps in each phase.

Consider Attending a Critical Incident Debriefing

Most incidents which affect us will not be accompanied by an official debriefing, but many departments offer peer support and critical incident stress management counselors. Use them. Talking about the incident, and getting an empathetic ear will often ease the helplessness you might feel. If your department does not offer in-house help, seek outside help. Talk to your spiritual advisor, a trusted friend or anyone who you feel comfortable with. Reading about grief, trauma and stress can also help.

Get Accurate Information and Feedback

Closure stress has been blamed for burnout. Often we have no idea what happened to our callers. This alone causes stress, but paired with a particularly stressful call, it can add to the trauma response. Find out what happened. Even if the outcome was tragic, knowing helps you work through the event and the stress. Also, try to learn about stress reactions. Knowing what reactions are "normal" and which ones might be troublesome can help you get the help you need.

Working Through
Find Meaning in What Happened

The most devastating and common questions emergency communications operators hound themselves with are why did it happen?, why did I say what I did? and what could I have done differently to change the outcome? The answers are: no one knows and nothing. You were doing the best job you could and understanding these answers can help healing.

Integrating the Experience

The call happened. The tragedy happened. You had and have emotion with regard to it. Nothing will change that. To recover successfully, you must own the memories and the feelings. Don't judge them; just accept them. Make peace with them. You can also use your personal experience with the event and your coping to help others.

Emergency communications is a tough job. Every dispatcher and 911 operator is a first responder. We sense the tragedy, the pain, the joy and the myriad of human experience through our auditory senses. And just like any other sensory inlet, our ears send the message to our hearts, which often get heavy. The burden can be eased. I end with this quote from Peggy Sweeney: "Our lives are like a tapestry woven over time with events and memories of people who have touched our lives. Some tapestries are simple, while others are intricate and sewn with many colors; each a unique masterpiece. The tapestry you continue to weave will reflect your individual pain and sadness, loneliness and longing, love and memories."

No comments:

Post a Comment