Updated: Jun 5, 2019
By: Brendhan T. Sears
**WARNING: this blog contains material that is not suitable for younger audiences, and may act as a trigger for some readers with PTSD. **
By this point, you're probably all familiar with Verizon's first responder ad that aired during the Superbowl. Here it is if you haven't seen it:
Dispatchers and their supporters from all over immediately took to social media to voice their disappointment and frustration, including us.
It is a good commercial. We are not at all denying that... but when you see the words "first responders answer the call," there's something to be said when those very people are noticeably missing: us. The phrase is a slap in the face to the men and women who dedicate their lives to this noble profession.
I have to say, I was shocked to read divisive opinions and responses from within our industry. Some accused us of not appreciating the ad. Others said we were trying to steal the spotlight, or that we are obsessed with trying to be recognized. That last comment is an interesting one considering the evidence of how frequently we're actually overlooked is found within the ad itself!
There were even people within law enforcement who said that dispatchers aren't first responders because they don't put their lives on the line. I've come across many definitions of the term, but I have yet to find one where "putting one's life on the line" is a qualifier.
There's a very big point being missed here, and it has absolutely nothing to do with bruised egos.
The Federal Government currently has our occupation listed under Office and Administrative Support Occupations. Clerical workers. Clerical workers don't deal with the stress of life-or-death emergencies everyday. They don't routinely talk someone down from suicide, or hear the gunshot that takes that person's life. They'll probably never sit on the phone and listen to someone take their last breaths... your voice being the last they'll ever hear.
It's unlikely that they'll listen to the terrified screams of someone being burned alive, or know what an aluminum bat sounds like as it beats the life out of a child. I doubt they'll experience the crippling guilt of wondering if they could have done something different to prevent that little girl from drowning. The kind of "what if" feelings that dispatchers are forced to choke down because the phone is already ringing with another crisis. Or the closure they'll never get because they're overlooked during critical incident debriefings.
The Association for Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) reports that 78% of PSAP's (Public Safety Answering Points, or 911 call centers) have at some point had their telecommunicators (TC's) working onsite for both planned events and major call outs. More than half of the remaining percentage indicates that their agencies are "considering policies or a training program to have Public Safety Telecommunicators operate in the field."
Can you think of a planned event where things ended tragically? Perhaps the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas in October of 2017 that left 59 dead and 489 wounded? This is precisely the type of event that TC's may work on site for.
As technology evolves, so must emergency services. Next Generation 911 (NG911) is going to bring those advances in technology to the 911 center, adding the capability to text, and send pictures and live video to 911. Some centers have already adopted text to 911, and live video is an emerging technology that I've personally participated in a live demonstration of. One day soon we're going to do more than just get phone calls for the next school shooting - we're going to watch it unfold in real time.
All of this leads to the big, scary elephant in the room: PTSD. It's been seven years since Northern Illinois University published a study linking post traumatic stress to TC's. One of the most prominent symptoms experienced by TC's is hypervigilance. Responses to this include severe anxiety, panic, fear, rapid heart beat, and difficulty concentrating or sleeping.
Those who suffer from hypervigilance may turn to drug or alcohol to help them calm down. In the long term, recurring symptoms can lead to social anxiety and isolation, both of which can damage relationships.
It's important to recognize this because it means that additional mental health services can be made available (or mandatory) for TC's who need it. If you're one of the fortunate TC's who can escape the very real clutches of mental illness unscathed, I am happy for you, but don't diminish it just because you haven't suffered from it... yet.
It is for these reasons that we all need to stand in solidarity. A simple change from Office and Administrative Support Occupations to Protective Service Occupations could mean additional mental health services. It could mean access to more training, and who knows? It could even mean a more level playing field for pay. There are a lot of possibilities here, both seen and unseen, all of which could be beneficial to us personally and professionally, and to our industry as a whole.
Take a look at some of the other professions fall under Protective Service Occupations. In a category that includes animal control, ski patrol, crossing guards, and retail loss prevention, I feel there is more than enough room for us in there, too That's not to say they don't belong there, it's to suggest that we do.
We literally save lives everyday. Our physical location and whether or not we risk our lives is irrelevant. We work hard and do amazing things for the communities we serve, but we are not immune to the trauma associated with it. We deserve this recognition.
Can you hear me now??
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