Struggles Behind the Mic: An Ode to the Dispatcher
Imagine the critical incidents that a lot of us have dealt with through our service, both volunteer and career. The intensity, the adrenaline dump making our heart rate spike, the difficulty of a dynamic and quickly changing situation, the lack of dexterity and tunnel vision that seems to show up. Now imagine that you are in the middle of it…blindfolded. This is the experience of a dispatcher in the first responder world.
There's no question that dispatchers and telecommunicators deal with a lot. They are the first line of communication that people speak with, often on the worst day of their lives. Not only this, but there are many simultaneous actions that are taking place at the same time, and the dispatcher is responsible for all of it. They coordinate resources and record/collect information like a conductor seamlessly orchestrating a symphony of chaos. If you really dig into this world, you will see that there are some intense stories to be told. Stories of talking a caller through CPR on a loved one, cutting through the emotion of someone that just experienced loss to get the needed details, or dispatching the needed equipment in dynamic and ever-changing scenes. Many dispatchers know or are even friends with the responders on the street, and the only way to provide support in the moment is through the screen in front of them.
"...imagine that you are in the middle of it...blindfolded."
Studies have shown that 17-24% of emergency response telecommunicators exhibit symptoms of PTSD and 24% of the same group exhibits signs of moderate to severe depression (CDC.gov). While the CDC provides this information, the agency also acknowledges that there is likely a number of first responder suicides and suicidal ideations that go unreported to the data collection mechanisms. The numbers are almost assuredly to be higher than this. That’s the data perspective, but there is one of function as well.
To prepare for this blog post, I was fortunate enough to have phone conversations with a couple former dispatchers, one retired, one in another career path, as well as one that is still in the vocation. I asked the question about isolation when it comes to dealing mental health struggles, and they all universally agreed that they felt under supported at one time or another in this job. The younger ones offered that they felt embarrassed talking about their issues with certain calls, that the more experienced dispatchers would look down on them as being weak. Interestingly enough, in the saddest and most ironic of ways, the older ones expressed the exact opposite sentiments. They felt that they needed to convey strength and resilience to the younger generation.
Now, I’m not an expert on mental health issues, but I am able to notice patterns. Wouldn’t this particular instance point to mental health stigmas being the culprit in preventing these people from moving forward in a positive way? To me, if we are able to change the perception of how we deal with our inner struggles and become more forthcoming and honest with each other, we would realize that there is a path forward through open and honest conversation in our struggles. This isn’t isolated to dispatchers, but this is one of the clearest examples of isolation and preconceived notions preventing positive steps in recovery that I have ever seen. We simply have to do better for each other, ourselves, and the future of our individual vocations.
"...we would realize that there is a path forward through open and honest conversation in our struggles."
This instance highlights the importance of programs like Stories of Blood & Ink (SOBI). Sometimes, to get the ball rolling, there needs to be available outlets that are disconnected from the workplace and our direct peers. SOBI is a great place to start in the decompression and unloading process. The open conversations need to start somewhere. If you are so inclined, you can reach out through the email listed at the bottom of this blog. Our team has all signed nondisclosure agreements, and we will work with you to effectively tell your story. We also offer virtual meetings every Monday and Friday, where you can talk with people that have similar experiences. You will not be judged, you will not be spoken over, and you will be heard. There are great people on each call that have gone through the painstaking task of coming forward with their inner struggle. You can reach out through www.projectrefit.us to get connected into these meetings.
Thank you to the dispatchers. We appreciate you, the people behind the mic…the ultimate support for the boots on the ground. I implore you, let us return the favor and let’s take steps forward together.
Hope M. Tiesman, PhD; Katherine L. Elkins, MPH; Melissa Brown, DrPH; Suzanne Marsh, MPA; and Leslie M. Carson, MPH, MSW. Suicides Among First Responders: A Call to Action. CDC.gov. https://blogs.cdc.gov/niosh-science-blog/2021/04/06/suicides-first-responders/
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Did you know that Project Refit hosts 2 regular zoom meetings each week for veterans and first responders to talk to each other? Our meetings are every Monday (streamed) and Friday (private) at 9pm. Use the "Let's Chat" feature on our website to get the link.
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Casey Brown is the volunteer Chief Editor for Project Refit, and is a firefighter/EMT in New Jersey. Together with the rest of the PR team, Casey strives to authentically and effectively tell the stories of vets and first responders. Casey believes that a story told is a life extended, and is helping to empower many other vets and first responders to share their stories. Casey is actively seeking volunteers to join our growing writing staff. If you would like to contribute, email firstname.lastname@example.org to find out how YOU can get involved.