Dispatcher Trauma: Recognizing the Warning Signs
By Dr. Carrie Steiner
Studies show that dispatchers have one of the most stressful jobs in the United States. Due to the constant exposure to trauma, dispatchers are at risk of developing anxiety, depression and post- traumatic stress disorder. It is important for dispatchers to understand what signs of acute stress reactions are but also aware of post traumatic stress reactions to help themselves recognize when they may need help.
Warning signs and symptoms of stress include being irritable, lack of participation in activities, destructive or addictive behaviors, physical health complaints i.e. unexplained headaches, backaches, stomachaches, loss of sense of meaning, aggressive, avoiding work and interactions, easily being distracted, fatigue, difficulties managing emotions and relationships, feeling emotionally numb or void of feelings. Signs of post-traumatic stress disorder are re-experiencing the event through nightmares/daymares, having intrusive thoughts, avoiding anything that has to do with the event, being overwhelmed by emotions, hypervigilant, poor sleep, etc.
It is also important for dispatchers to know that they are more at risk of having emotional difficulties after certain types of call which are, but not limited to, an unexpected death or injury to a child or defenseless person, suicidal calls, violent death, any incident where a first responder is injured, calls that are similar to an event they have experienced, knowing the victim/offender. Further, some of the other reasons dispatchers can feel overwhelmed by work is that there is no down time, internal stressors/politics, they are not able to be on scene to help and have limitations to what they can do, they often do not know the outcome of the situation, changing protocols, and often other first responders do not value or respect how important dispatchers are. Police officers and citizens can often be argumentative with dispatchers and expect a lot from them. Dispatchers are extremely instrumental to a call as they are the life line for all those who can hear. One of the reasons many first responders feel confident in their job in very dangerous situations is because they do have a life line, which is dispatch. Dispatchers like many other first responders must pat their own back because they often do not receive accolades from others despite saving lives.
The First Responder Wellness Center (founded by Dr. Steiner) encourages dispatchers to recognize their stress and understand that they are exposed to cumulative trauma, so they are more at risk of developing a mental illness. Mental illness is common, in fact, 1 out of 4 people will have a mental illness in their lifetime. Therefore, it is important to do a lot of self-care and prevention planning. FRWC recommends that all first responders find a mental health professional that they feel comfortable with who are competent treating first responders prior to needing one.
It is important for dispatchers to set themselves up for success, so please create a plan of action for when you experience trauma or need professional help. Also recognize that it is difficult to cope with cumulative trauma and that you have a job where there is constant trauma and stress of life or death situations. Therefore, it is normal to feel overwhelmed at times, so ensuring you are getting good sleep, eating healthy, and having some fun in life will help to cope with the day-to-day stressors. Being a dispatcher can be an interesting and fulfilling job but having additional coping resources will allow you to be resilient throughout your career. Do not be hesitant to ask for help!
About Dr. Carrie Steiner and the First Responder Wellness Center
Dr. Carrie Steiner is the founder of the First Responders Wellness Center (FRWC) which is a full service psychological services facility for dispatchers, law enforcement, firefighters, EMS/Paramedics, ER staff, corrections, and Veterans. Dr. Carrie Steiner was a Chicago Police officer who worked on her doctorate in clinical psychology, while active duty she was a Crisis Intervention Team Leader, peer support member, and Chicago Police Academy instructor.
The FRWC is staffed by former and current first responders, therefore, we are first responders helping first responders. FRWC provides individual and couples therapy, crisis intervention after critical incidents, individual and group debriefings, trauma/PTSD group therapy, stress management, yearly wellness checks, department mandated therapy and conflict resolution. Further, FRWC provides psychological testing such as pre-employment testing and fitness for Duty evaluations, and independent medical evaluations for first responders. Due to these services, Dr. Steiner and other colleagues can provide expert testimony and consultation for court, if needed.
FRWC is the only center in the country that solely sees first responders and their immediate family members. FRWC staff understand that first responders have unique therapeutic needs and are aware of first responders concerns such as confidentiality, Fitness for Duty, FOID reporting, inpatient hospitalization that can often keep first responders from reaching out. FRWC staff will answer any questions related to these issues and are well-informed of statues that apply to first responders. FRWC clinicians are comfortable talking about trauma and addressing trauma related issues. Clients will find clinicians to be well-seasoned and not reactive to critical situations.
FRWC clinicians use evidenced based treatments for therapy including cognitive behavior therapy, exposure therapy, Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, bio and neurofeedback, and cognitive processing. FRWC strives to help first responders meet their goals and actively work towards them with a plan of action.
By Carrie Steiner, Licensed Clinical Psychologist
Final Thoughts from Humanizing the Headset
A few of our admins have been fortunate enough to have Dr. Steiner lead some critical incident debriefings. We are grateful for her dedication to our wellness as well as her important contribution to our page. Please visit her website to learn more about FRWC and to read her blog. If you need someone to talk to, please message us or check out our resource tab. We are happy to work with you to get the help you need and deserve. If your department doesn't currently invite dispatchers into their debriefings, follow your chain of command to get that ball rolling and go all the way up if you have to. You'd be surprised at how beneficial they are. - Brendhan