9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A Dispatcher's Dilemma; Dealing With Stress

"Officer down!" is a dispatcher's nightmare. Every emergency service dispatcher fears the day that they will lose an officer due to an accident, or criminal incident. Any critical incident places the dispatcher in an extremely stressful situation. Dispatchers must stay at their consoles during hurricanes, tornadoes, explosions, fatal accidents, homicides, and many other man-made or natural disasters. They have a important functioin to perform and the officers responding to the incident need guidance and reassurance that the situation can be controlled and that additional help is on the way.

Getting that help, making those calls for assistance, and helping officers on the scene in forming decisions falls back on the dispatchers. They are a vital link in the success of the operation.

Dispatching has evolved over the years from being a call-taker position to being a jack-of-all-trades in the telecommunications field. Preparing for an emergency situation or a critical incident is a vital part of the training curriculum. A dispatcher must have the knowledge and confidence in order to assist the field officers in making critical decisions based on information provided through the communications center. These decisions place a tremedous amount of stress on dispatchers, both physical and emotional.

Emergency services personnel in the field are faced with a different type of stress compared to dispatchers. Those in the field must deal face-to-face with situations and people. Dispatchers can only picture what is taking place through the medium of communication. Dispatcher may never see the individuals that they are speaking with.

Dispatchers are responsible for the field unit officers. During basic academy training, police officers are taught to always keep the dispatcher advised to their status when making vehicle stops. Cops have a tendency to ignore the basics after they are on the job awhile and many car stops are not reported to the dispatcher, especially during daylight hours. Bullets and death cannot distinguish daylight from darkness. Field officers need to follow their policy for their own safety.

Officer Connie Hawkins lost her life on July 1, 1993. Delaware County Dispatcher Kevin Smith sent her on a 911 hang up call. Smith said that Hawkins, who was completing another call, acknowledged the transmission and that's the last he heard from her. She was shot and killed on the front porch of the residence where a domestic had taken place. The suspect also shot and killed his girlfriend after shooting the officer. The suspect was eventually apprehended for DUI in another state.

Smith said he felt very cold when the call came in notifying the 911 center that an officer had been shot. After dealing with the incident for over an hour on the console, he was relieved from duty and broke down both emotionally and physically. He was debriefed and counseled by a member of the Critical Incident Stress Team, who provided support. He questioned himself for many nights about what he could have done differently.

This is the type of stress that dispatchers encounter day in and day out throughout this country. Far too many police officers die in the line of duty. Many times the dispatchers needlessly hold themselves responsible for these deaths and this stress takes its toll.

I am sure that there are many of you who can relate to these stressful situations, hopefully when they arise you will take the necessary steps to avoid unnecessary pain and suffering. Seek the help, because those of us who work in the emergency services field cannot do without you.

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