By Jeffrey Vilk, Guest Writer
When I started my career as a 9-1-1 dispatcher, I knew — or at least I thought I knew — what emotions I would experience. Excitement and anxiousness when I picked up the 9-1-1 call; nervousness and concern as I sent police officers to a call with lights and sirens blaring; stress when I gave CPR instructions to someone who was frantically trying to save their loved one’s life; sadness when an officer I worked with daily got injured and concern for people that were being harmed as I tried to get help there as fast as I could.
Never did I anticipate feeling all these emotions at once, in a span of about three days, during the protests of 2020. Nor did I ever expect to feel so torn between supporting police and supporting the public whom the police are committed to protecting. The last few days have been a whirlwind of emotion as I’ve watched the country I love splinter like broken glass.
Before you tune out, let me be clear — this is not a political column. It is one of both sympathy and empathy for dispatchers in America today, and one of concern for the well-being of my thin gold line family.
If I am feeling this way, what could the dispatchers that are in the protest zones and the areas where police have gotten hurt and killed over the last three days be going through?
Informal polls show that dispatchers from around the country are being affected more than they let on. Some are in constant worry — worried for their police officers who are on the ground and for their family members who are in law enforcement. They are concerned for the backlash their family members may face for simply being in law enforcement. Others are saying their “helper gene” is in overdrive. They are constantly watching live feeds to determine where people are that may need help. Others are in constant fear of being “unmasked” as a dispatcher who works law enforcement. Some feel they will be blamed for anything that might happen while they’re on duty.
The activities of the last few days are a prime breeding ground for burnout. According to Adam Timm in his book “Dispatcher Stress: 50 Lessons on Beating Burnout,” burnout happens when you “suppress your feelings and expect things to change without doing something different.” Normally, burnout happens after years of stress-related incidents while on the job. But with the difficulties of the past week, the process can happen much more quickly.
Do not internalize your feelings. Let them out or the point will come when you snap. Stress of any kind can affect every part of your body and if not controlled, can lead to an early death. During this uncertain and tumultuous time of protest and angst, it’s so important to unplug both figuratively and literally. Turning on the news or logging into your social feeds may lead to frustration. Constantly subjecting your body and mind to the stress caused by current affairs can cause huge short-term effects with long-term repercussions. “Being in constant fight-or-flight mode impacts your communication, focus, nutrition, and health,” Timm writes in “Dispatcher Stress.” “It undermines your performance and productivity. You get less sleep, drink more caffeine, and generally feel rundown.”
Of course, we are not perfect, and we must realize that if we cannot deal with the stress and gravity of what has been going on, we must have the courage to reach out. There’s no shame in asking for help, and the stigma associated with it must be erased. While there is no national support hotline specifically for 9-1-1 dispatchers, that does not mean that help is not out there. Safe Call Now is a confidential 24-hour crisis hotline specifically for public safety first responders. The National Alliance of Mental Health is also available at (800) 950-NAMI. The National Suicide Hotline is available 24/7 by calling (800) 273-8255. Additionally, there are many “dispatcher only” groups on social media where you can reach out to colleagues from all over the world without fear of judgement or ridicule.
Do not forget: Even through the recent darkness, light is waiting to shine through. You just have to let it in.