Police Dispatcher Stress – The Silent Killer
Olivia Johnson, DM
“9-1-1 what is your emergency?” A question asked thousands of times a day by our country’s emergency dispatchers. But what happens after the caller hangs up? How do dispatchers’ deal with the stress (e.g., cumulative and critical incident) or the compassion fatigue? If answering honestly, there is probably much room for improvement.
Police Dispatcher Stress – unheard, unseen
Many emergency responders deal with stress and fatigue like many of us deal with stress and fatigue, inappropriately (e.g., overeating, substance abuse, caffeine, nicotine, lashing out, and calling in). In addition to dealing inappropriately to job related stress, dispatching as a career has an extremely large turnover rate.
So why don’t we hear more about the struggles faced by many of this nation’s dispatchers? Why, because all too often, working behind the scenes leave them out-of-sight, and out-of mind. Dispatchers lack the visibility of their police, fire, and EMS counterparts.
In fact, dispatchers are overlooked in many areas, regarding their health risks to stress and stress disorders. But why are they overlooked? Often, because there is a lack of awareness about the stress dispatchers face after they hang up.
Many believe that because dispatchers do not respond directly to calls or witness trauma firsthand, they could not possibly be susceptible to such aftermath. But the reality, dispatchers are subject to many of the same stressors as other first responders. And this is reiterated in a study published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress, which explains this phenomenon.
The study conducted by researchers from Northern Illinois University “… found that the 911 dispatchers still experienced the emotional distress associated with PTSD, even though they were not directly in the traumatic event” (as cited in Chan, 2012, para. 2).
So the argument that dispatchers, not directly involved with victims and trauma, are not vulnerable to the after-effects of stress does not hold true, at least not in this study. And having worked in the capacity of a first responder, I would venture to say that the results are probably generalizable to a larger population.
The research also indicated that a majority of survey respondents considered calls with endangered children or calls where first responders were sent into harms way, to be the most disturbing (as cited in Allen, 2012, para. 5).
In essence, there is an overwhelming sense of helplessness and responsibility on the shoulders of this country’s dispatchers. Knowing that they cannot physically assist on scene, while having to live with any unfavorable outcomes may be too much for some to handle. In addition to taking back-to-back calls and other job demands, dispatcher stress can be attributed to a necessary and often natural lack of emotion.
Those outside the emergency responder realm would probably panic if they had to answer a call for a screaming child being viciously attacked by a dog, a young woman pleading with an assailant for her life, a young man telling you he is going to kill himself, or another emergency responder calling for assistance.
Many would falter under the stress and pressure of listening helplessly on the other end of the line. Not the dispatcher, at least not while on the line.
The seemingly silent stress for the dispatcher occurs once the call is over and before the next call arrives. This is also the deadly type of stress. The type of stress that becomes commonplace and unnoticeable for what it is.
Dispatchers can easily feel helpless in the face of vicarious trauma and other job related stressors.
How can we help dispatchers feel less helpless, in-turn reducing their stress? Start by raising awareness to the problem. This can be accomplished through training and education. However, the training and education should not just be limited to non-emergency personnel.
Many first responders are actually unaware of their health risks associated with job stress, especially the long-term effects. In addition, communication is essential in detecting stress or deciding if the stress is actually something more. As we venture forward, more research must be conducted in the area of dispatcher stress. Enabling those who train and educate first responders to raise awareness in this area.
And to allow those within the medical field who treat first responders to detect problems earlier, while minimizing the negative effects stress has on the body, mind, and career of those behind the dispatching desk.
About the Author: Dr. Olivia Johnson holds a master’s in Criminology and Criminal Justice from the University of Missouri, St. Louis and a doctorate in Organizational Leadership Management from the University of Phoenix – School of Advanced Studies.
Perseverance in raising awareness to officer wellness resulted in her being named the Illinois State Representative for the National P.O.L.I.C.E. Suicide Foundation. This role led to her being invited to speak at the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit’s 2010 – Beyond Survival Toward Officer Wellness (BeSTOW) Symposium.
Dr. Johnson is a veteran of the United States Air Force and a former police officer and collaborates with several journals regarding law enforcement issues. She writes for Law Enforcement Today as their police leadership expert. Her services were contracted out by Crisis Systems Management to train military personnel worldwide on Critical Incident Peer Support (CIPS). Correspondence can be sent to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Allen, J.E. (2012, March 29). 911 dispatchers at risk for PTSD. Retrieved April 3,
Chan, A. L. (2012, March 29). 911 dispatchers at risk for PTSD, study finds. Retrieved
April 1, 2013, from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/29/911-