By Jeffrey Vilk, Guest Writer
Since I began writing this column, I’ve realized something: I’ve forgotten a group that impacts us more than any other–our spouses and significant others. They are the ones who are there to pick up the pieces after we’ve experienced a tragic event. Events like when a baby receiving CPR instructions dies, or when a field responder dies on the job while we were working the radio. They must also deal with the inconvenient and frustrating parts of our job such as shift work and mandatory overtime.
Online support groups have become an important part of the public safety landscape and are readily available for police, fire and EMS workers and their spouses or loved ones. But what about support groups for OUR supporters? Spouses of 9-1-1 dispatchers need support too. I’m sure the admins of first responder groups will gladly welcome the spouses of dispatchers, but it’s not the same. They may not feel comfortable sharing in a “police wives” or “spouses of first responders” group either because they do not feel like they belong or feel their concerns are not legitimate enough for that of a group whose spouses have to worry about seemingly ‘bigger and more important’ things. Additionally, spouses of dispatchers will never have to worry about their significant other having to use a gun while working or climb a ladder to put out a fire. Nor will they ever need to comfort their spouses because they used a gun on the job or lost a person while putting out a fire. My wife Dawn shares the sentiment:
“Police wives’ experiences are totally different. My concerns are different. I’m not worried about [my husband] getting shot or losing his life in a fire. I worry about the crazy shifts and the mental impact of the work. I worry about the calls and how he might blame himself for a call gone wrong,” Dawn said.
In 2018, my agency had an officer die on duty. He was struck by a vehicle while assisting another officer with a traffic stop. I was working that day. One minute, the officer was yelling for help on the radio, and the next, officers arrived on scene and requested a medical helicopter to land on the freeway only to cancel it soon after. Our biggest fear had been realized. I spent the rest of my shift waking up captains and lieutenants, and fielding calls from officers asking what happened. It was a bad day. When I returned home after shift, the only person that I could turn to was Dawn. I woke her up and simply said, “We had an officer die tonight.”
“I didn’t know what do, what to say, or how to react,” she mentioned later. “After the incident, the police wives’ support was great, but it left me feeling in limbo. Not that the police wives didn’t help, or that I felt uncomfortable around them, it’s just that I wasn’t a police wife – I wasn’t a member of their community.”
Support groups can be helpful because they bring together like-minded people through similar experiences. First responder groups help but these groups can be even more successful when they are extremely specific.
“A lot of times, I can’t imagine the roller coaster of emotion you go through,” my wife told me. “Just because you don’t go out and pull a trigger or have to save a life from a fire, doesn’t mean there aren’t worries or fears.”
We dispatchers must be part of the solution, though. As much as we might hate to admit it, we’re guilty of forgetting about our significant others and taking them for granted. We unload on them, and they fall back into the shadows. It’s important to consider they may be having a tough time dealing with things too. Not because they were directly affected by what happened, but because they want to help and don’t know what to do or say. We must make a conscious effort to keep them at the forefront of our minds. We must communicate with them, even when we don’t feel like it.
Introduce your spouse to your colleagues’ spouses so they have someone to turn to when they need it, for example. My wife believes just having the option and knowing they are out there can help. Turn to social media and be part of a change, if you feel so called. Working in public safety is difficult enough. Especially in 2020. Not only those employed by an agency, but for those whom they go home to. Collectively, we can all help make it easier on each other.
Author’s Note: If your spouse or family members would like someone to talk to, reach out. Check out the new group I created on Facebook “911 Dispatchers – Spouse/Family Support.” Offer your spouse the option of joining, and if you know spouses of colleagues, share it with them, too.