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From the Chair: Requiem for a Dispatcher
Author: Paul D. Bagley
When you think of hazardous jobs what comes to mind: firefighters, high-rise steel workers, bomb disposal technicians, 9-1-1 dispatchers? Dispatchers? What is the hazard of sitting in a secure room behind a cluster of computer monitors, answering phone calls, and talking on a radio? Plenty! In this edition of "From the Chair," Paul presents a real-life cautionary tale to remind us just how dangerous dispatching can be. The take-away lesson may just save your life.
It’s been some years since I last worked with Joe. He was twenty-plus years my junior, but he was every bit a dispatcher’s dispatcher. After high school he had enlisted in the Army and served as a waist gunner aboard a helicopter gunship; whether or not he saw actual combat I never learned. When his enlistment was up he became interested in law enforcement and was instantly accepted into the fraternity of police officers due to his quick wit and jovial nature. He never aspired to becoming a full-time officer; part-time was apparently more to his liking. Instead, he thrived upon the challenges of dispatch. I can state without reservation that Joe was the most fun person with whom I ever worked. I can also state unequivocally that he was the absolute worst person with whom I ever shared a console. Like any precious jewel, though, Joe had many facets – some you could clearly see; others always remained outside of view.
Although I may have been old enough to be his father, Joe was senior to me in the workplace. In fact, he was senior to almost everyone who worked there simply because of his longevity. Joe used that seniority for what some might have considered his exclusive benefit, but in reality, it was his ultimate undoing. He ducked his shift assignments in order to pursue his own personal interests. When 9-1-1 lines were ringing, his thoughts were on other things and his mind was focused elsewhere.
Upon returning to civilian life after his military stint, Joe had a relationship with a woman that begot two children — a girl and a boy. Although not formally married, they lived as a family in an apartment nearby, and things were fine for a brief time. But irreconcilable differences can occur inside or outside the bonds of marriage, and Joe and his girlfriend soon went their separate ways. The children remained with mom, and became just so much collateral damage and the primary weapon in her personal arsenal. Being with his kids was essential to Joe; he needed their company regularly in order to breath. Mom would withhold the kids whenever she wanted something from him, even when all she wanted was to drive him crazy. She would often call him at work and taunt him; dangling his children in front of him like a piñata. When she did, Joe was pretty much useless for the rest of his shift.
As time went on, I noticed a somewhat disturbing pattern to Joe’s moods and behavior. He would drag himself to work in the morning, despondent about everything. He would be indifferent toward the call-taking and dispatching that was our job. Suddenly his mood would do an about-face and he’d be on top of the world. A hot call would come in and he would jump on it with a committed passion. It was as if I was watching a clinic on how to do two-fisted dispatching. A few short hours later he’d be back to where he began; deeply contemplative and depressed. We all tried to help him any way we could, but those hidden facets of himself that we weren’t allowed to see were actually the ones controlling his destiny.
When training new dispatchers I often used the analogy that dealt with the amount of rope stored aboard a ship at sea. A ship can carry only so much rope, and if the crew lets it all out at any given time there won’t be any left to tie up to the dock when they reach port. The same is true for emotional rope. Each person has only a finite amount of it. If a dispatcher uses up all their emotional rope on a single call or caller, they won’t have anything left when the phone next rings. More important, they won’t have any emotional rope left for their loved ones or, even themselves.
The police novelist Joseph Wambaugh wrote of a character who described the desired interaction between a police officer and the public as, “… civil to everyone - courteous to none.” While I wouldn’t use that verbiage to describe how dispatchers should interact with callers, I would say that emergency telecommunicators should aim toward expressing empathy with a caller’s plight rather than sympathy. In the role of call-taker or dispatcher, those who become personally involved risk becoming part of the incident, and potentially, part of the problem.
When I was a Boy Scout, I was awarded the lifesaving merit badge. I have always remembered the standard evolution of action in water rescues: “reach; throw; row; go.” The first step was reaching out to the victim from a secure and stable platform. If that didn’t work, you were supposed to throw a line or a flotation device to the victim. Absent a sturdy rope or a life preserver, you would find a boat or a canoe and row or paddle to them. Your absolute last resort was to jump into the water to bring them in. The reason for this was simple: people who are in trouble in deep water tend to panic easily, and they’ll grab at anything and anyone they can in the midst of that panic. If the rescuer doesn’t control the situation, he or she could easily become victimized by the very person they’re trying to save. Emergency dispatching is no different.
People in trouble do almost anything to relieve the problem or eliminate the pain that they are enduring. They are not fussy about where they acquire their relief. A sympathetic ear at the receiving end of their 9-1-1 call is what they first turn to for help to solve their predicament. The trick for the dispatcher is to ascertain the problem, dispatch the appropriate resource to solve that problem, and remain neutral and detached from the individual’s personal tragedy. For caring human beings that last part – remaining neutral and detached – is an extremely difficult standard to maintain.
I won’t speak for the personal motivations of others, but among the primary reasons I enjoy the job of emergency dispatching is being acutely aware of what’s going on around me. Within the geographic turf involved, I have an insider’s view of all the things that the gossips discuss over morning coffee at the local diner. More than half of the cases they chatter about I have usually dispatched, although I’d never admit that to them. Joe migrated from law enforcement to dispatch for the same reason: he loved having the inside skinny. He managed to maintain the elusive goal of being neutral and detached from those in trouble at the other end of the line. That’s one of the things that made him so good at his job. And even though Joe was careful not to allow his emotional rope to play out to the scores of callers whose problems he solved every day, he failed to keep close control of his reserves when it came to his personal life.
Toward the very end of his all-too-brief career, Joe was like a quasar: he was bright and brilliant, and full of energy. And just as his light flashed so brightly for an instant, it quickly vanished, never to return. Joe took his own life one night at home in a quiet and sequestered fashion, and he left us all wondering what we might have done to help keep him from that fate. We’ll never know. The only thing that was crystal clear was that Joe had literally come to the end of his emotional rope, and he was either too stubborn, or too proud, to seek help from anyone else.
Many believe there are no professional dangers associated with a career in emergency dispatching. Oh sure, you can be hit by a bus on the way to work, fall down a flight of stairs, or choke on a walnut. But call-takers and dispatchers are inside a sheltered communication or call center where they are protected from the elements, and where access is restricted to authorized personnel. Unlike field personnel who can contract diseases from direct exposure to people, endure burns from fires, or get shot or stabbed by criminals, dispatchers are relatively immune from such life-threatening on-the-jobs killers. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t work-related problems that can mess up, or even take, a dispatcher’s life. It’s true that most of Joe’s troubles were likely located outside of work. But the emotional tax that he paid while he was at work could have been the margin of difference for him. At the time of his passing I was told by a fellow dispatcher that suicide was the leading cause of death for full time active-duty dispatchers in the United States. I don’t know where he obtained that factoid, or whether it was even true. But losing a valuable colleague like Joe as we did, I was inclined to believe it.
Maybe the lesson we were meant to take away from Joe’s life and his death was not to be afraid to throw out an emotional lifeline to our brothers and sisters when we suspect they’re sailing into shoal waters. Maybe we should also not fear accepting help by way of emotional rope from our comrades if we’re the one in need. Sitting in The Chair is, in itself, a tremendous responsibility. The very lives of those we serve are in our hands. Included in that charge are those with whom we share our careers — our fellow telecommunicators. Their lives, their safety, and their well-being are also part of our charge, just as our lives, our safety and our well-being are part of theirs. It is said that charity begins at home. No place is that more true or more important than in The Chair.
A related resource: A free e-book, Stress and the Emergency Dispatcher, by T.P. McAtamney, the founder of Headsets911, is available. For information, see our new book page here).
Paul D. Bagley is a published author of both fiction and non-fiction books, a retired police officer and emergency dispatcher. He is the past president of New Hampshire Emergency Dispatchers Association, and he is editor and publisher of the association’s monthly newsletter, “The NHEDA Broadcaster.” Paul’s opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of his public safety employer.
"From the Chair" was conceived and developed for 9-1-1 Magazine by 911Lifeline, a national 501(c)(3) membership association providing services for 9-1-1 telecommunicators, assistance to the media, and public education programs. For more information visit http://911lifeline.org.