Dispatchers need debriefs, too

Including dispatchers in debriefings for major events can help them achieve maximum emotional recovery


By Lisa Rymshaw

A career in public safety is not about being a hero in the spotlight, but the fact is that first responders often find themselves in the “starring role” of many incidents, some traumatic. And while the type of first responder in the spotlight will differ from incident to incident depending on the type of emergency at hand, there is one branch of emergency services that rarely finds itself the focus of attention: emergency telecommunicators.

Despite the significant level of responsibility dispatchers bear in any type of emergency event, they are essentially invisible. Their lack of on-scene presence often makes them more of a disembodied information source than a team member. This invisibility can lead to several issues, including a lack of post-incident analysis and debriefing.

"[Dispatchers] lack of on-scene presence often makes them more of a disembodied information source than a team member. This invisibility can lead to several issues, including a lack of post-incident analysis and debriefing," Rymshaw writes.

Researching dispatcher needs

With the occupational identity of emergency telecommunicators in mind, I conducted a survey of dispatchers for my doctoral research. My goal was to learn their ideas for achieving psychological well-being in the workplace.

I received 142 responses from PSAPs throughout the state of California, from rural areas to large cities.

Dispatchers speak up

A common theme that surfaced through the research was emergency telecommunicators’ desire to be included in debriefs with their fellow emergency responders. Many voiced that this was particularly important after experiencing highly traumatic events; however, for most agencies, it was not common practice to incorporate dispatchers in debriefs.

In most cases, field responders do not personally hear the dialogue of a 911 call. Therefore, they have no firsthand knowledge of how uncooperative, distraught, exaggerative or incapacitated the caller may be. They only see the telecommunicator’s narrative in CAD, which we know can sometimes cause the first responder to incorrectly assume that the call-taker must have missed or misinterpreted information.

The same is true for radio dispatch. Field responders are highly focused on the event at hand, rather than what is going on at the radio console. Sometimes, they have so much adrenaline pumping that they don’t hear everything the dispatcher is saying, or they are talking too rapidly for the dispatcher to understand them clearly.

All of this is happening while the dispatcher is simultaneously handling not just other units, but likely, other events as well. Granted, it is certainly not the role of the field responder to listen to each call, nor to keep track of each unit. However, each of these unheard and unseen components can render the telecommunicator as the scapegoat – someone easier to complain about when things aren’t going smoothly, and someone easier to forget once things are resolved successfully.

It is also true, however, that each of these unheard and unseen components are major parts of the emergency telecommunicator’s unique occupational identity. Their role is to be the calm voice in the dark. And, while they chose the role, they would also like it to be more positively acknowledged by the team. As one participant noted:

“Respect us and the work that we do. We are a critical piece of the puzzle. We are forgotten about until someone wants something. What would life look like if you had no one to dispatch?”

Emergency telecommunicators identify themselves as first responders, particularly since they are usually the first to receive information about an emergency. However, they are not often     viewed as first responders by their emergency colleagues. This disconnect causes a lack of feeling valued, as one participant noted:

“Our former management team saw the value of our communications center, and it was apparent in the way they treated us. Our current management team seems to be split in what value they see, and it is apparent ... It is difficult to force someone to respect something they do not see value in.”

Furthermore, unlike their on-scene colleagues, who might stop for coffee, self-assign to a calmer type of incident, or have the opportunity to drive in silence until the next call, emergency telecommunicators typically do not have the same options for decompressing. Rather, they must continue to handle crisis after crisis, whether operating the radio or receiving calls. As such, they must repress any physical or emotional reactions, thoughts or feelings about the traumatic or high-energy event that just occurred.

Many of the participants expressed that debriefing would create a feeling of collaboration:

“It would be great to have more regular debriefings with the officers to talk it out and see what would be better actions to take the next time.”

Not only would it help in terms of proactive problem-solving, but it would also serve to give recognition to emergency telecommunicators as a critical link in the chain of emergency service – something that appeared to be very important regarding their occupational identity and their sense of well-being:

“Dispatchers should be recognized for a job well done.”

Of course, this would necessitate that supervisors – whether they are civilians or officers – be tuned in to the needs of their telecommunicators following a highly stressful event. For example, while it is not always practical to have the entire group debrief immediately after such an event, perhaps the telecommunicator and the supervisor, and maybe even one of the field responders, can informally check in with each other. Even a small amount of time to process and share feedback and emotions can lay the foundation for a team mentality.

Even when a highly traumatic event has a successful outcome, it is likely that the emergency telecommunicator may have received the brunt of traumatic human emotions related to the event – something about which supervisors may not be aware if they do not typically listen to calls. Missing something like this will likely affect the anxiety level, and ultimately the performance, of the emergency telecommunicator. Therefore, they want:

“... more priority given to debriefing a tough call. As a small agency, supervisors may not know about a tough 911 call until days later.”

According to some participants, another reason telecommunicators would like debriefings is to achieve a sense of closure after traumatic events. This is especially important to the call-taker, who has directly experienced the fear, pain or anguish of the caller (and/or the victim) and then had to push all of that down to take the next call, and the next – while still wondering at the back of their minds how the initial traumatic call turned out. Unfortunately, in larger agencies, or in agencies that dispatch remotely for their field responders, telecommunicators are infrequently informed as to the outcome of an event.

However, one participant shared that their agency has recently begun to change this:

“My agency just initiated ‘debriefings’ for dispatchers on highly stressful calls, such as CPR on children. On the same day of the call, the dispatcher is taken off the schedule and allowed to meet with the Engine, the medics, or both to discuss the call, ask questions, find out the outcome, cry, vent, etc. It should have been instituted years ago, but I am glad it is happening now.”

In sum

The results of this survey show the importance of including emergency telecommunicators in debriefings for major events in order to achieve their maximum emotional recovery. Part of this emotional recovery includes being recognized as a vital branch of the emergency team. Ultimately, this will lead to their psychological well-being, which in turn sets the foundation for optimal officer safety and protection of civilians.

About the author

Lisa Rymshaw, PsyD, is a former emergency telecommunicator. In addition to researching and freelance writing, she also collaborates with the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office to assist survivors of human trafficking and exploitation.

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