Peer Support Programs – Mitigating the Emotional Effects of Vicarious Trauma Experienced by 911 Dispatchers

Peer Support Programs

When in crisis, we call for help. In North America, it’s 9-1-1. In other regions of the world, it’s a different number. But what’s more important than the number, is who’s on the other end – the emergency response professionals on the front lines during our greatest times of need.

From fires to automobile accidents, natural disasters to violent crimes, and so much more, their ability to calmly, efficiently and compassionately comprehend the situation and tend to the immediate needs of the caller/texter, while simultaneously setting a coordinated response in motion, is inarguably the stuff of superheroes.

Beyond the critical, tactical, logistical, and operational aspects of the job, the emotional heavy lifting that emergency telecommunicators and dispatchers must handle is taxing. And all too often overlooked. Perhaps inevitably, many face at least some form of compassion fatigue or secondary traumatic stress at some point in their career.

For years now, we at Zetron have made a concerted effort to recognize the toll this work takes on the emergency response professionals in those hot seats and raise awareness for the vital wellness support needed to keep them healthy and safe, just as they work so hard to do for all of us.

In the past two years specifically, we’ve held wellness webinars, (Part 1: Wellness & Peer Support ProgramsPart 2: Integrating Peer Support in the PSAP) conducted surveys, published posts, and connected our emergency response audience with professionals that specialize in creating wellness programs to promote the mental, emotional and physical health of emergency responders.

Suffice it to say, we’re is invested in the wellness of superheroes. So, when we came across the published thesis, “Peer Support Programs: Mitigating the Emotional Stress of Vicarious Trauma Experienced by 9-1-1 Dispatchers,” by Melissa Alterio, Director of Emergency Communications at Cobb County 911, we felt compelled to share her fantastic work on this very important topic.

Melissa’s passion and appreciation for the profession are evident. She explores the key concepts of compassion fatigue from shouldering the traumas of others through the lens of someone who sits in the seat and intimately understands the work.

In her paper, Melissa shares the story of New York Fire Department Dispatcher, Gloria and her experience during the 9/11 terrorist attacks. So often, we think only of field First Responders and Military personnel when we consider the need for trauma support. Melissa’s paper reminds us that Emergency Response Dispatchers are heavily impacted by the fallout of traumatic events too, even without necessarily being exposed to them physically.

The study of the health and wellness of Emergency Dispatchers is an understandably growing field, and we’ll continue to share content and resources in support. While not our own obviously, this work is too good not to share. We humbly thank Melissa for her great contribution to this important cause and her graciously permitting us to share it with you on Z-Wire.

The following are brief excerpts from Melissa’s paper. You can read the full paper, Peer Support Programs: Mitigating the Emotional Stress of Vicarious Trauma Experienced by 9-1-1 Dispatchers here.


 

Abstract

Public safety telecommunicators, often referred to as 9-1-1 dispatchers, experience a significant compassion fatigue and secondary traumatic stress. Their job duties include listening to highly emotional callers provide specific details on current, tragic, and often horrific critical incidents in volatile working conditions. This paper focuses on a systemic review of research that identifies the working conditions and responsibilities of 9-1-1 dispatchers and the subsequent emotional effects of sustained exposure to vicarious trauma. The research recognizes a minimal amount of documentation regarding the stress 9-1-1 dispatchers’ experience which supports a fundamental need for comprehensive, longitudinal studies in this job classification. This review also seeks to prove the lack of intervention programs employed to reduce or mitigate the emotional effects of vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue, and secondary traumatic stress, thereby resulting in the irrefutable need for workplace peer support programs to combat these conditions felt by public safety telecommunicators.

Introduction

A research study conducted in 2015 at a national dispatch conference reported 17% of 205 participating public safety telecommunicators experienced symptoms of acute stress disorder (ASD) during their careers, a notably higher percentage than the general population (Trachik et al., 2015). Public safety telecommunicator (PSTs), (referred to in this document also as 9-1-1 dispatchers, 9-1-1 professionals, or emergency dispatchers) have a significant risk of exposure to secondary trauma due to experiencing critical incidents unfold through 9-1-1 callers descriptive information about traumatic scenes while in a highly emotional state of panic and distress (Rigden, 2017). Further research has shown that PSTs suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), with a significant correlation to peritraumatic stress, showing PSTs do not need to be physically present during a traumatic event for it to negatively impact their wellbeing (Pierce & Lilly, 2012). The frequency with which PSTs are subjected to highly emotional calls, paired with the presence of PTSD symptoms, can seriously jeopardize a PST’s everyday judgment and decision-making abilities on the job (Pierce & Lilly, 2012). Studies have shown peer support in the workplace minimizes distress and angst experienced by emergency service workers as a result of trauma and those who suffer post-stress related reactions following a critical incident (Scully, 2011).

Background

In the early morning hours of September 11, 2001, Fire Department of the City of New York (FDNY) dispatcher Gloria A. (personal communication, June 30, 2020) began her shift shortly after 6:30 a.m., arriving earlier than scheduled. Her specific assignment was dispatching Emergency Medical Services (EMS) units for the city (Dispatcher G.A., personal communication, June 30, 2020). With her partner calling in sick, Gloria was assigned the dispatching duties for all of Manhattan on this particular morning. As a military veteran turned public safety dispatcher… Read More


 

Resources

If you are a 9-1-1 Dispatcher who is struggling or in crisis, you deserve help:

National Alliance on Mental Health

https://nami.org/

NENA Wellness Continuum

https://www.nena.org/general/custom.asp?page=WellnessContinuum

APCO International – Health and Wellness

https://www.apcointl.org/community/human-resources-toolbox/health-and-wellness/

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – Call 988

https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/

Follow Cobb County: https://www.facebook.com/joincobb911

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