Study Finds 911 Dispatchers Are Near The Top For 'Stressful' Jobs

 

BY O.J. EARLY

The woman who called 911 was so hysterical that it was difficult to understand her. Someone in her house was in cardiac arrest and not breathing.

That's when 911 dispatcher Rebecca Hilton went into action.

"All you could hear is screaming," Hilton said. "I had to say, 'Ma'am, I need your address first so we know where to send someone. When she got me that, she was able to get me everything else. I walked her through CPR."

Hilton has worked as an emergency dispatcher at the Greene County 911 call center for almost two years. She's fielded plenty of calls from distraught citizens, but that one was the most intense.

Stress is part of the job for emergency dispatchers, who log long hours answering emergency calls.

The Greeneville call center took 40,500 calls in 2013, Director Jerry Bird said.

That's an average of 111 a day. About 30 percent of calls to the Greeneville center were "potentially life-threatening," Bird said.

"Whenever the caller is just uncontrollably excited ... the dispatcher has to get the caller calmed down and get the information from the caller and try to get the information dispatched in a timely manner to help the caller," Bird said.

"On a stress level from one to 10, I would say it's a good nine."

Every 911 call made in Greene County goes to the call center, located at 111 Union St.

Dispatchers field all types of calls, from house fires to medical emergencies. After taking the call, employees at the Greeneville center dispatch emergency personnel to the scene of the incident.

STRESS

A 2013 article published in Business Insider listed police, fire and ambulance dispatchers as one of the most stressful jobs in the U.S.

The article compared stress levels of more than 600 occupations, and ranked emergency dispatchers 13th on the long list.

Talking to hysterical callers can induce plenty of pressure for Hilton, a former emergency room registration worker at Johnson City Medical Center.

Two weeks ago, Hilton took two cardiac-arrest calls.

"Back-to-back I took those calls ... Those are some of the hardest calls to take."

Not knowing if a patient lives or dies also produces anxiety, she said.

Once emergency responders arrive on a scene, the role of a 911 dispatcher ends.

"You kind of get let down," she said. "You help up to that point, but you would like to know how it finishes."

Hilton, for example, never found out the fate of the cardiac arrest victim from two weeks earlier.

RELIEVING ANXIETY

A May 2012 study, conducted by researchers at Northern Illinois University (NIU), linking on-the-job training exposure to trauma, placed dispatchers at risk for developing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The study was published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress.

"We found that dispatchers report significant emotional distress related to handling duty-related calls, and this type of distress is associated with increased risk for developing PTSD or PTSD symptoms," said NIU Psychology Professor Michelle Lilly, one of the authors of the study.

Hilton has found that talking to others, especially those in health-related fields, relieves some of her anxiety.

Her husband works for Greene County-Greeneville Emergency Medical Services, and Hilton often finds herself sharing the day's troubles with her husband.

"It really helps having someone to talk to who understands," she said.

TRAINING

Most emergency dispatchers are required to have a high school diploma and receive on-the-job training, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Bird said most of his dispatchers talk with fellow employees and other emergency personnel as a way "to get closure on some of the stress they encounter."

No training is offered specifically focused on dealing with stress, but dispatchers at the local center have the option of participating in Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD), Bird said. CISD is a type of intervention that attempts to prevent or stop post-traumatic stress.

Bird said dispatchers can request this service.

That happened following the weather events of April 2011, when seven Greene County residents died during a tornado outbreak.

"During the tornadoes, we had dispatchers that we sent to the debriefing," Bird said. "Somebody came in and talked with the emergency personnel that were involved."

That prompts the question: Is a job that produces so much stress really worth having?

Absolutely, according to Bird.

"It is a rewarding job," Bird said. "The thanks that we get from the citizens, the support that we get, makes it all worthwhile. It's all about them."

"If the dispatchers didn't care about the citizens and the callers, then they wouldn't be in this profession."