May 20, 2021
Brett Wrenn

(Estimated Read Time: 7 minutes)

Emergency Telecommunicators answer the call during everyone else’s darkest hour, but who do they call during theirs?

During my time wearing the headset, I wasn’t sure who to contact if I was having trouble dealing with the day to day stress on top of truly tragic emergency calls — and at this point in my career I’m left wondering, why?

Emergency telecommunicators are exposed to, or directly involved in managing, the most tragic events in their community. You might think that these professional communicators would speak openly about their stresses from dealing with these emergencies, yet this is often not the case. No matter the cause of this silence — whether it’s resource availability, education or work environment-based — it’s time for change.

It’s time to bring an end to emergency telecommunicators suffering in silence. As a community of 9-1-1 call takers we need to openly talk about the effect this incredibly difficult and incredibly rewarding job can have on us. It’s time to prioritize mental health for emergency call takers.

Acknowledging the Impact of 9-1-1 Calls

Every day emergency telecommunicators answer each call that comes, without knowing what is happening on the other side. From the grandmother who has fallen, to the two year old that found an old cell phone and dialed by mistake, to a near silent call listening to someone take their last breath — we’ve handled it all. The important part to remember though is that just because a call ends, or is resolved in the best way possible, doesn’t mean that it can’t affect the call taker.

Over time, emergency telecommunicators are faced with challenging calls that can expose us to tragic situations we’ve not experienced before — and these calls can stay with us. There’s something about the difficult calls that hang in our minds, and surprises or triggers us when we least expect it. For me it’s the sound of silence when I know a baby should be crying, or the whispering from across the room that flashes me back to the whispers on the woman locked in the bank vault… After all of these calls and experiences, emergency telecommunicators can have these hidden memories that fill our minds with what can’t be unheard.

It’s in these moments that we need to feel empowered, supported and encouraged to share our experiences.

Openly Talking About Mental Health

Emergency telecommunicators are known for their calm nature, mental strength and decisiveness; yet for years people have acted as if truly tragic calls didn’t affect us. As emergency telecommunicators we pride ourselves on being empathetic, resilient and action oriented — shouldn’t this also apply to ensuring we have the mental health resources we need and utilizing them when necessary?

Often mental health resources exist for emergency telecommunicators, but if we’re not openly speaking about them (and destigmatizing using them) these resources can go without use.

It’s important for PSAP leaders to create an environment where mental health is openly spoken about. It’s also very important that professional mental health resources are readily available and using them is encouraged. Leadership is the key to making sure emergency telecommunicators know they can speak up if they need help.

You’re Not Alone

If you’re having difficulty managing the day to day stress of the job, experiencing flashbacks, extreme stress or strange emotions, I urge you to first, stay calm and listen to yourself. Take notes as to what you’re experiencing and then comes the toughest part — taking action.

Generally the best person to reach out to is your direct supervisor or team leader. Your supervisor should be trained in helping you process everything and know exactly what professional resources are available to you. But you don’t have to stop there, talking to other experienced emergency telecommunicators or counsellors can really help, too.

There are also a wealth of online resources you can utilize. Here are a two that I recommend:

Making Mental Health a Priority

All in all, a PSAP where mental health is taken seriously will have more effective emergency telecommunicators because their wellbeing is taken seriously. This can help with team camaraderie, stress management and create an overall better work environment.

When emergency telecommunicators are left alone to deal with the mental/emotional trauma of handling emergency calls every day, it can negatively impact mental health, productivity and increase burnout.

I promise you that PTSD from handling emergency calls is real. It took seven years after I started experiencing undue stress, night terrors, outbursts and mood changes before I spoke up and sought help. I’m proud to say that I found the help that I needed and I’m thankful for the people who were there for me. That being said, here are some quick tasks you can do to make sure you and your team are prioritizing mental health:

  • Create a readily available mental health directory of your resources
  • Assign partners or mini-groups for emergency telecommunicators to speak more openly about daily stress and review difficult calls
  • Have routine check-ins with your supervisor
  • Keep a journal to log your thoughts and experiences
  • Make time to de-stress and disconnect while you’re away from the call center

Mental Health in 2021

When the dust settles after a call, it’s important for every emergency telecommunicator to know that resources exist to help them. In order to truly change the way we deal with mental health in the PSAP we need to do this as a community. We’re stronger together and should strive to be the helping hands and sounding boards we each wish we would have in these situations.

If you are reading this and have already experienced flashbacks, undue stress or don’t feel like yourself, please know that it’s okay to talk about it. Reach out to your supervisor, use your resources, talk to your co-workers, and reach out to your network. If you don’t feel comfortable with those recommendations, please feel free to message me.

Emergency telecommunicators are the superheroes we rely upon every single day. By helping destigmatize speaking about and utilizing mental health resources we can help protect 9-1-1 call takers — just like they would protect us in any emergency.

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