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Emergency Dispatchers Cope With Their Own Distress

Public safety: Disaster on the other end of the line wreaks havoc on 911 operators. Turnover rate is high, but the opportunity to help others is a comfort.

April 15, 2001|JAMES HANNAH | ASSOCIATED PRESS

DAYTON, Ohio — When she answered the phone Sept. 1, 1991, police dispatcher Desda Doersam heard a gunshot. The hysterical caller said she was hiding behind a coffee table and her son had just shot his wife.

"This is probably the worst call I had ever dealt with," recalled Doersam, a 20-year veteran with the Miami Township police department. "All I could think of is: Is the woman OK? I actually heard the shot being fired."

Doersam dispatched officers, then waited an agonizing three minutes before learning that the suspect had surrendered and her caller was safe. The caller's daughter-in-law, however, lay dead, her boyfriend wounded.

Doersam said she went to her doctor later that day when she started feeling pain in her arms and feared she was having a heart attack.

"I just couldn't deal with it very well," she said. "I was stressing out."

Shootings, drownings, even tornadoes are all in a day's work for police and fire dispatchers, but the pressures do take a toll and affect how smoothly public safety institutions run.

In Salt Lake City, the turnover rate for dispatchers in 2000 was 31%, up from 19% the previous year, said Carol Groustra, bureau chief for the Utah Department of Public Safety. One reason, she said, is stress.

In Minneapolis, where about 600,000 emergency calls are handled each year, the 911 office is chronically understaffed because of a high turnover, forcing dispatchers to work overtime.

In Ohio, the State Highway Patrol has responded to an increasing workload by hiring more dispatchers--282 statewide, up from 242 in January 2000.

"Ultimately, this will be able to help reduce some of those stresses," patrol spokesman Sgt. Gary Lewis said.

Lisa Filipucci, a dispatcher at the patrol's Sandusky post, said she never knows what she will encounter when the telephone rings.

"You always have that anxiety. It is very stressful," said Filipucci, a 20-year veteran. "I'm sure getting a few gray hairs."

On Nov. 5, 1997, Filipucci took a cell phone call from a duck hunter on the shores of Sandusky Bay. The caller said his friend had gone into the water to retrieve their boat and had gone under. The hunter said he had tried to rescue him, but failed.

"He had no idea where he was. He didn't know what to do," Filipucci recalled. "He wanted to go back out into the water, but it was freezing. I had to work with him to try to get a location."

Filipucci said she remained on the phone with the hunter for nearly an hour and couldn't take her eyes off the clock.

"You're concerned for his safety and hypothermia," she said. "As the seconds went on, they seemed like minutes and hours to me."

The hunter eventually was rescued. His friend drowned.

Filipucci said a dispatcher must struggle to remain composed when a caller is hysterical.

"If they sense you're anxious or upset, they escalate," she said. "If you can remain calm, a lot of times you can bring the people down and they think much clearer."

Lewis said dispatchers serve as a lifeline for patrol officers. He said many dispatchers develop a sixth sense to recognize when an officer is in trouble.

"They [the dispatchers] will call for backup just [from] hearing the heightened tension in your voice," he said. "They have to be very fine-tuned to what's going on."

Hal Brown, a Massachusetts-based psychotherapist and former police officer, writes for Police Stressline, a Web site designed to help police deal with the pressures of the job.

"The stress is incredible when you're dispatching someone and they're not getting there quick enough," Brown said. "You're on the radio, and you're hearing gunshots. There's got to be a tremendous feeling of helplessness."

Brown's advice in those situations: "Don't hold the feelings in, but find somebody you can talk to. And then know when you need professional help. Don't deny that you're having symptoms."

Sometimes dispatchers make crucial snap decisions.

Based on calls she was getting from residents, Xenia, Ohio, dispatch supervisor June Johnson activated tornado sirens Sept. 20 even though the National Weather Service had not issued a tornado warning. A twister touched down in the southwest Ohio city, injuring more than 100 people and causing an estimated $40 million in damage.

The city manager honored Johnson for her decisiveness.

"I'm sure her actions saved many lives. If she hadn't gone ahead and taken the action on her own . . . residents would have had no warning whatsoever," Assistant City Manager Charlie Leonard said.

According to a survey of 254 New Jersey dispatchers, a perceived lack of control is a major contributor to job stress and burnout.

Brown said lack of recognition also figures in.

"They're the least seen and least glamorous part of the team, yet they need to be the crucial part," he said.

Renee Meador, co-founder of a Virginia-based group designed to help officers and dispatchers, called dispatchers the "forgotten children" of the emergency response team, although they share the burdens of changing shifts and being on call around the clock.

"And you are talking about a job culture that has no margin of error thanks to a world of civil liability," she said. "You don't get a second chance."

Dispatcher Doersam said calls can trigger a roller coaster of emotions. Emergencies like shootings sometimes come in on the nonemergency line, catching dispatchers by surprise.

"Then you get a 911 call--you get your adrenaline up and ready to go--and it's somebody reporting a barking dog," she said.

Doersam, 54, said she gravitated toward the job because her mother and several of her friends were dispatchers.

Dispatcher Filipucci, 39, had applied to nursing school when the dispatcher's job opened at the Sandusky post. She took it and never looked back. She says she loves it because of the satisfaction of being able to help people.

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