Crisis Mode: 911 Operators Suffer in Silence

July 25, 2014

“9-1-1, what’s your emergency?” To the person calling 911 for help in an emergency, these words are a lifeline. But little thought is given to those answering the call. Those men and women who work as 911 operators or dispatchers must remain calm call after call, hour after hour, day after day. It is exhausting and stressful to be thrown into someone’s worst nightmare, and the emotional toll it takes on 911 operators is often overlooked.

While other first responders such as police or firefighters are often heralded for their bravery during a crisis, the role of the call-taker, who is literally the first responder, often goes unrecognized. Operators must hear some horrific details and never know what emergency they’re going to be thrust into on the next call. Constantly being in crisis mode can erode their mental health and cause some 911 operators to experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

PTSD is a mental health condition brought on after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic or disturbing event. Classified as an anxiety disorder, diagnosis occurs when certain symptoms persist such as recurring flashbacks, avoidance or numbing of memories of the event, and increased emotional arousal. Because of the stressful nature of their jobs, first responders are often at greater risk of experiencing PTSD than the average person.

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The National Emergency Number Association has begun to appreciate the long-lasting and severe psychological effects that 911 operators endure and recommends that 911 call centers create an eight-hour course for employees on recognizing and handling the effects of stress. Also, it has been suggested that de-briefing call-takers on the outcome of their calls would be a big step towards closure as most operators never know what happened after the call is over. That and public recognition of the bravery and efforts of 911 operators, as is often given to other first responders such as police and firefighters, would go a long way in providing them positive reinforcement for a difficult job.

American Addiction Centers and myself would like to personally thank all the men and women who bravely answer each call, always there when we need you. Thank you for your service.

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