9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Friday, June 6, 2014

Officer Down: Dealing with Trauma in Law Enforcement Communications

Taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine, November 2008
Written by Alicia Ihnken, training course instructor for the APCO Institute.

Shots fired! ... He's got an axe! ... I've been hit!

Whenever responders are called to duty, there's a chance they may be injured or killed and not make it home to loved ones.  The effects on family are obvious.  The effects on the telecommunicator may be a little harder to understand, but are equally real.  It doesn't matter what size your agency is or how busy it is, a line-of-duty tragedy is always possible.  And when something happens to one of your own - whether your department is close-knit or you wouldn't recognize your shift on your day off - a floodgate of questions, worry and heartache will open.

A telecommunicator in Florida tells the following story: "Aug. 13, 2005, I went into work feeling like something awful was going to happen.  I could not shake this terrible cold feeling that seemed to have overtaken me...Just before midnight, one of the dispatchers took a call and put it in as a robbery in progress.  I was working the fire channel and watched in horror as a K-9 officer and his partner's tracking device stopped working.  I just stared at the car's icon on the computer map not moving.  Within seconds another dispatcher took a call from a passer-by stating that a pickup truck had pulled in front of a police car and the police car had flipped.  The dispatcher only had to say, "WHAT?!", and I knew it was my friend the K-9 officer, because I was fixated on his vehicle tracking device not moving at all.

"While sending out the fire units and notifying the ambulance service, I felt my head pounding so hard that I could hardly speak.  All of the city's officers were responding with lights and siren to the accident scene along with the fire units and a battalion chief.  I heard the fire chief call over the radio to send out a page to all fire administration regarding the death of an officer.  I could barely type in the page; I thought I had lost one of my best friends in the world.

"One of the lieutenants from the fire truck sent me an instant message asking me if I was doing all right.  She could tell by my voice that I was not handling this situation well.  We heard on the police radio the awful scream from the officer's wife and that's when each and every one of us lost it.

"Everyone was crying and in a state of shock that this could happen on our shift.  All of a sudden, the director and office manager were in the communications center, but they were simply going through the motions, just like the rest of us were trying to do.  The victim advocate was called in and spoke to each of us, and the day shift was called in early to relieve us.  As the day shift came in, one by one all the night dispatchers were sent home early, but only after speaking with the victim advocate.

"I was the last one to see the advocate, one of the most painful experiences I've had in 16 years of dispatching.  I told her about the awful feeling of loss I'd had all day long and that I'd really wanted to call in sick because I just felt so out of sorts.

"After I left the communications center, I stopped at the nearest open convenience store and bought my first pack of cigarettes in 10 years and proceeded to smoke the whole pack.  I bought another on my way to work on Sunday.  Not one of the dispatchers on my squad slept that whole day, and we came in looking like zombies.  When we all sat down you could hear a pin drop.  No one said a word.  It was apparent that all of our lives had changed the night before.

"Aug. 13, 2005, is a day that I will never forget, and I still cannot bring myself to leave the house on that day.  I still do not have closure, and every Aug. 13, I go onto the Officer Down Memorial Page and reflect on my feelings about that wonderful officer, which seems to make me feel a little better.  There is no way that I can explain my feelings.  You always think police officers and firefighters are invincible, and when something like this happens, reality steps in and shakes your whole world."

The telecommunicator who shared this story with Public Safety Communications (PSC) eventually left dispatching.

An officer's story: August 2001, approximately 0130 HRS:  It was a quiet night in a three-square-mile city of 17,000 residents.  The quiet would be shattered by the crash and near death of a rookie police officer with less than six months on the job.  This is my account of that night.

"The city I worked for hired trainees as part-time officers, meaning they could work only 32 hours per week.  When field training officers were assigned a new hire, we kept them with us until they had completed a minimum of 300 hours of training.  That was a long time to have someone riding in your car, and you either liked them a lot or really didn't like them.

"'Scott' was my trainee, and because we were close in age, we became close friends.  August 2001 would challenge our friendship, make me question my ability to serve as a training officer and my techniques and knowledge, and make me realize just how quickly things can go from normal to really bad.

"We were working midnight shift.  A corporal was running our shift, I was the senior officer, and we had two newly released officers, one of whom was my latest trainee and friend, Scott.  Around 0130 HRS, the corporal and I were on the opposite side of the city meeting with each other, when Scott reported that he was trying to stop a vehicle traveling at a high rate of speed.  Within what seemed like seconds, the other new officer was in position trying to help Scott get the car stopped.  Mere seconds after that, the other new officer reported a patrol car crash and requested fire rescue.  The corporal and I responded.

"I was the second person on scene, and thinking back now, it seems that despite the horror before my eyes, I simply reacted to the crisis upon arrival.  I observed my friend's patrol car off the roadway, basically destroyed.  I noticed flames coming from the underside of the car, grabbed my fire extinguisher and put the fire our.  When Scott saw me, he immediately began screaming for me to help him.  He couldn't breathe, and he was begging me to get him out of the car.  I tried to comfort him and told him help was on the way.  It took firefighters 45 minutes to extricate him and begin transport to the hospital.

"Standing on scene, the thought crossed my mind that this crash was my fault.  I had failed Scott as a training officer and as his friend.  There had to be something I could have done, could have said, that would have made this different.  How many times had I done the exact same thing, driven at high speed to catch up with someone who was speeding?  How many times could I have ended up just like Scott or worse?  Why didn't I tell him that it just wasn't worth it?  I blamed myself.

"Scott suffered career-ending injuries.  He broke his neck, shattered his left arm and leg, broke his pelvis and punctured a lung.  Over time, he healed as much as could be expected, even more than some expected.  Today, he is mobile, and he can do most things without assistance.  But he constantly feels pain and will never regain the strength or stamina he had before.  He will never be a police officer again, but he is alive, and that's what truly matters.

"After Scott's crash, I sank into a kind of depression.  I couldn't shake my feelings of guilt.  Despite what anyone said to me, I blamed myself.  In some ways, seven years later, I still do.  I received little to no support from my agency, and if not for my family and friends, I might not have been able to cope with the feelings I had from this incident.  Initially, I wanted to stop being a training officer, but I soon realized that I could use this experience as a means to educate other new officers.  I could relate my experiences from what was nearly the only line-of-duty death I had been to and share that.  I could use this to teach new officers that they are not invincible.  None of us are.  The badge and gun we carry do not exempt us from accidents or injuries that can end our lives or careers.  There are some things that we cannot change, and some dangers that are simply a part of the job.  The ability to deal with the stress that we experience, while realizing that we are all human and we all experience horrible things from our chosen field, and being able to deal with negative feelings in a positive manner are keys to success.

"This incident happened before Post Traumatic Stress Management and Debriefings were discussed in law enforcement in my area.  I realize now that this was absolutely a traumatic incident, and I needed to work through this and get my feelings out.  I was lucky.  I was able to work through this and turn a negative into a positive in my future.  Some people aren't that lucky."

The officer who told PSC this story was able to take this tragedy and use it to help others and himself.  Even though it took a while to rebound, he is still working in law enforcement, now with a renewed focus on traffic enforcement and training.

The worst thing to do in any situation like this is to play the "what-if" game.  There is no room for second guessing when dealing with events that cannot be changed.  That should be done only in training scenarios and forward planning.

No one is immune to emotional responses to tragedies they witness.  Rank and experience don't count and can even make one feel more responsible and therefore suffer more deeply.  People who choose careers in emergency services or public safety tend to have much in common, and some of these traits affect how we deal with stressful situations and tragic circumstances.  Do the following characteristics apply to you or someone you know?
  • Obsessive: "It has to be done this way.";
  • Compulsive - every time;
  • Control or action oriented - at work and at home;
  • Easily bored;
  • High need for stimulation;
  • Risk taker;
  • Highly dedicated;
  • Need to be needed;
  • Difficulty saying no;
  • Family oriented;
  • Driven by internal motivations; and
  • Generally high tolerance for stress and ambiguity.
What can you expect to go through after a traumatic event?  Your reaction starts within minutes of the event and will continue months and possibly years afterward, even when you receive help.  You should be aware that you and your co-workers may have several responses to an officer-involved injury or death: heightened sense of danger; anger; nightmares; flashbacks and intrusive thoughts; isolation/withdrawal; numbness; startle responses; alcohol/substance abuse; marital problems; perceptions of going insane; fatigue; crying/depression; guilt; trouble remembering/concentrating; and/or anxiety.

Other stress reactions, such as difficulty sleeping, headaches, muscle aches, stomachaches and high blood pressure, may also occur.

Initial responses may include psychological numbing, fear, denial, nausea, perspiration, guilt and panic.  These symptoms will manifest themselves and most likely get worse over the first 24 hours.  Sleep will be evasive, and concentration will be extremely difficult.  You will find you are "going through the motions" because it is easier than thinking about what you are doing.  When you start to think, you start to think about what happened.

In the next few days, doubts and fears will intensify, and you might feel increasingly vulnerable.  Hopefully, you will have had an opportunity to speak with a victim advocate or counselor immediately, but it is important to continue talking about the event.

Toward the second week, even though you have been experiencing strong emotions, you may start blocking things out with the desire to get back to normal.  Or you might worry to the point of obsession and relive the event over and over in your mind.

It's important to understand that these reactions are normal and should be dealt with.  If symptoms are ignored and go unchecked, the person's mental and emotional status will deteriorate even more.  It's also important to be able to recognize that your co-workers may be experiencing symptoms as well, and no one may be exempt from the effects of loss.

Not everyone's experiences will be the same.  Wayne R. Hill, PhD, clinical psychologist and president of Management and Behavior Consultants PC, says there are at least four possible ways in which symptoms manifest.  Public safety personnel may: 1) exhibit a tough exterior; 2) self-medicate emotional pain with alcohol or other substances; 3) overuse morbid humor, inappropriate jokes and exhibit seeming oblivion to the pain of others; and 4) exhibit isolationism, detachment and intolerance to human frailty.

Because of the characteristics common to those in public safety, we often try to handle things ourselves and keep our feelings -- especially those of vulnerability -- to ourselves.  But this is unhealthy and will make matters much worse.  On the other hand, an active and supportive approach to even the worst tragedy can facilitate successful coping by affected personnel.

Coping with trauma requires peer support.  What can you do to help?  Learn about critical incident trauma.  Be available.  Accept whatever response you get.  Don't judge; it is not appropriate to say, "You should" or use such cliches as "Everything happens for a reason."  Listen to what's being said.  Validate emotional responses.  It's OK to give advice as long as you're not condescending.  Be sensitive to changes in behavior or mood.  Offer to help with specific things, such as making phone calls, driving or running errands.  Personalize what you say.  "I remember how hard it was for me when my brother passed away.  I am so sorry about Jason's death."  Remember, you are not responsible for how others handle a traumatic event.  Know your limits -- and when to recommend professional help.  Don't be afraid to bring up the event weeks or months later.  Touch communicates a great deal.  If you're comfortable with it and if it's appropriate, a hug can mean a lot.

Often, going through a traumatic event and successfully dealing with the aftermath can help you be more effective for those who may be involved in later events.  Use your experience.

Information is available to help telecommunicators cope with tragedy, but the information can be confusing and disheartening.  So take the steps to find out more before a tragedy occurs.

Stress & The Invisible First Responders

Taken from 9-1-1 Magazine.com, July 7, 2013
Written by Brooklyn Mundo, former 911 dispatcher who became an advocate for the psychological well-being of 911 calltakers and dispatchers while studying psychology at Rollins College.  She recently presented the results of her research on the psychological effects of working as a 9-1-1 operator to the Seminole County (Fla.) Sheriff's Department and is submitting her research to scientific journals for publication.  Brooklyn recently graduated from Rollins College and started a new job as a career development center specialist at Seminole State College of Florida.

Most people don't consider that behind every shooting, car accident, bank robbery and kidnapping is the story of the 9-1-1 dispatcher who is, in essence, the first responder on the scene.  Considered even less is the psychological impact of this job.

After about two years as a 9-1-1 dispatcher in an emergency communications center in Central Florida, I began to experience weight gain, panic attacks and paranoia.  Even though my mind had adapted to the day-to-day adrenaline rush of vacariously encountering traumatic situations, I couldn't escape the physiological and emotional consequences.  As a psychology major in the Hamilton Holt School at Rollins College, I was learning concepts that described what I was experiencing, and conversations with my coworkers revealed that I wasn't the only 9-1-1 operator suffering the effects of being in a continual state of crisis.

Because of my psychology classes, I was able to apply an introspective analysis of my experience that helped me recognize the impact the job was having on me.  I realized that I was experiencing increased levels of anxiety and even paranoia in my day-to-day life.  Routine tasks started to make me flash back to certain calls.  I could no longer watch movies with action sequences because they would remind me of real events.  I felt fearful in my everyday life.  I finally started calling my experiences what they were: traumatic.

When you do this job, you work in a constant state of crisis and it becomes difficult to leave that behind at the call center.  As a 9-1-1 telecommunicator, we are expected to be there for people.  I had genuine empathy but I also developed coping mechanisms for self-preservation, a form of detached empathy that made it difficult to experience real empathy in my life outside of work.  It definitely affected my relationships.  Most 9-1-1 call-takers and dispatchers don't realize their own psychological distress because the heightened sense of adrenaline and crisis has become their "new normal" so to speak, but I was aware that this was happening because of what I was learning at Rollins.

An assignment for my communications research course gave me the opportunity to write an analysis of the research on 9-1-1 dispatchers.  After pouring over hundreds of peer-reviewed journal articles, I found only three studies directly related to the profession.  Being able to learn about and discuss my experiences at school was enlightening and comforting.  It provided an outlet.

As I headed into my final semester, I proposed an independent research project which gave me the opportunity to do some research on how 9-1-1 dispatchers were coping with the stress of the job and hopefully add some new information about the profession to the scientific community.  There has been a lot of research on police officers, but almost none on emergency communications dispatchers.  I needed somewhere to start.  So I compared data on police officers with data I'd collected on 9-1-1 dispatchers.  My hunch was that the study would reveal that both populations deal with similar stress levels.

My faculty advisor on the project, Rollins Professor and chair of the Psychology department John Houston, was both surprised and intrigued by the ambitious nature of the research.  He believed that my unique background as a 9-1-1 telecommunicator and as a psychology major gave me a special perspective on how a group like this doesn't face physical danger but experiences vicarious stress.  Recognizing the value of this study, the dean of Rollins' evening school provided grant money to cover some of the costs of the surveys.  What began as a personal journey toward understanding what was happening in my own head began to grow into a project that the surrounding community wanted to invest in and learn about.

As part of my research, I asked a group of 9-1-1 dispatchers to take an online survey in their free time.  The survey had four parts, two of which were similar to those given to police officers in previous research studies, one which looked at stress and distress when compared to the normal population, and the final part covered personality factors to see if certain factors were related to coping with the job.  With a response rate of 68 percent (which is pretty good in social research terms), the survey yielded a wealth of data, which a few of my classmates helped me analyze.

We found that there was not a statistically significant difference between the data collected on police officers and the data collected on these 9-1-1 dispatchers.  Both groups experienced similar levels of stress.  Furthermore, call-takers and dispatchers experience a higher number of critical incidents on a daily basis than officers out on the road, but there's no scale that can measure how the stress of handling phone calls of traumatic events compares to the stress of the face-to-face events that officers experience.  This study has opened the door for many other research opportunities, which is exactly what I wanted.  One of my primary goals was to raise awareness outside of the law enforcement community about the importance of the 9-1-1 dispatcher's role in law enforcement and the impact it has on the faithful people doing the job every day.  I also wanted people to recognize that 9-1-1 call-takers and dispatchers are the first responders to emergencies but no one thinks about them.

More research is needed to gain more understanding about the phenomenon of high turnover and psychological distress in call-takers and dispatchers.  Many dispatchers leave the profession for reasons unrelated to stress, such as going to the police academy or, mostly among female dispatchers, starting a family.  It may be helpful to survey dispatchers who resign from the position to get feedback about what made them leave the job.

My hope is that by demonstrating that 9-1-1 dispatchers face similar levels of stress to that of police officers, they would be considered in high-risk jobs and therefore be eligible for similar benefits, such as access to counseling and time off for psychological reasons.  Counseling is available to call-takers and dispatchers, but it is usually based on optional, external referral only for full-time employees.  Although there is a great need for further research before implementing any program, my hope would be that eventually law enforcement agencies would staff a police psychologist and mandate quarterly counseling appointments for all call-takers and dispatchers.  Who couldn't benefit from an hour with a counselor every few months, especially in this profession?

I am also concerned that call-takers and dispatchers are not utilizing the current counseling available because it is optional and external.  There is a culture in law enforcement that subconsciously says, "It takes a special person to do this job and if you need help, then maybe you aren't tough enough."  That is entirely untrue!  Indeed, law enforcement call-takers and officers are cut from a different cloth, but I believe there are some positive systems that can be implemented to help maintain that cloth and keep it from wearing out faster than its time.  It may be more cost effective for agencies to staff a police psychologist than to hire 12-20 new dispatchers every year and have such a high turnover rate due to those unmanaged negative aspects of the job.

What should call-takers and dispatchers do if they find themselves experiencing similar issues with anxiety, depression and generally high psychological distress?

Well, I'll be working to spread the word about you unsung heroes, but in the meantime, do some honest self-evaluation.  I challenge you to meet with a counselor at least once since most agencies plan for a few free sessions.  Take that first step!

Here's the bottom line:  Before any agency will implement any kind of mandatory program to help its employees cope with the job, it must have proof that such an intervention is necessary.  9-1-1 call-takers and dispatchers must have the courage to speak up and acknowledge that their high stress level isn't normal.  Every person is different, but making an effort to utilize the current counseling offered by each agency is a great place to start.  You, as call-takers and dispatchers, are the voice for many people in their time of crisis and now is the time to be the voice for the sake of your own heart and psychological well-being.