Emergency dispatchers note long hours and stress of job

Karen Alexander comes to work everyday with a single goal: that everyone she speaks with is still safe when she leaves work. As a 911 police dispatcher, that isn't always the case. Karen shares with the Post's Whitney Leaming how she handles a job where the unexpected is expected. (Lee Powell/The Fold/The Washington Post)
December 19, 2013

The woman who called 911 said she had been kidnapped by her boyfriend. All she knew was that she was in a red brick building somewhere near Benning Road in the District. She gave a name for her kidnapper, but on a public records search nothing came up.

As she tried to calm the woman, D.C. 911 operator Tanika Steen was able to wring out enough details to combine with cellphone coordinates and find the woman’s location on a Google map. Then she provided that information to police dispatchers. All the while, Steen said she was anxious: “I sound calm, but my heart rate was up.”

Steen has worked at the 911 communications center for seven years. Before that, she was an emergency medical technician, and she thought answering phones would be less stressful. She was wrong.

“It’s very stressful to do for long hours,” said Theodocia Tyson, Steen’s colleague at the D.C. 911 center. “Ninety percent of us have high blood pressure.”

Steen’s experiences and Tyson’s sentiments reflect the growing concerns of many 911 dispatchers around the region. The difficulty and emotional strain of the job as well as increasing call volume has forced some local emergency call centers to put workers on longer and longer shifts, even as coming technological changes mean that the job will likely become more challenging.


Dispatchers for 911 and 311 answer calls at the Office of Unified Communications building in Southeast Washington on Nov. 26. (Jared Soares/The Washington Post)

Shifts in the District are 121 / 2 hours a day with every other weekend off. In April, Lee Blackmon, a D.C. dispatcher and president of the union that represents the workers, warned in a letter given to D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) that the change would have an “overall negative effect” on public safety. Prince George’s County, Alexandria and Montgomery County dispatchers work 12-hour shifts.

“You have to have a support system” to handle the hours and the job, said Beverley Jackson, a Fairfax County call-taker and dispatcher. Otherwise, she said, you could never take care of a family or yourself.

Indeed, the concerns of dispatchers are getting new attention from national experts as well. Last year, a study from the Journal of Traumatic Stress found for the first time that the heart-wrenching situations dispatchers are dialed into can cause post-traumatic stress disorder. The study recommended better mental health support. But in the District, Arlington County and many other jurisdictions, dispatchers don’t receive the same benefits as public safety officials.

Part of what makes the job so stressful is that dispatchers often don’t know what happens to the people they try to help, experts say. Heather Pierce, co-author of the 911 study, suggested that dispatchers be included in debriefings to learn what happened in particularly traumatic cases.

“Sometimes it’s like starting a really good novel and you never get to the end,” said Vanessa Coles, operations chief at the Arlington center. “But sometimes knowing the outcome is not good. It can weigh on you just as bad.”

Dispatchers can recount harrowing tales that follow them long after their shifts have ended. Aleisha Fincher, an Arlington dispatcher for 13 years, remembers hearing a man screaming his wife’s name over and over on the phone while he tried to perform CPR. For years, she said, she heard it in her sleep. Now, “thank God,” she said, she can’t remember the name.

Linda Shegan, in Prince George’s, talked for more than an hour to a man who had killed his wife and was driving around with her body in his car, threatening to kill himself.

“It still affects you, I think, if you have any kind of morals or any kind of values,” Shegan said. “But you have a job to do.”

To address concerns about stress, Arlington is reducing shifts from 12 hours to eight or 10.

“We have been understaffed for years, and this schedule was just wearing on the folks,” said police Capt. Adrienne Quigley. Studies suggested the rotation dispatchers were on could lead to serious physical problems, she said. On the 12-hour shifts, exhaustion led to more people taking sick leave, which caused additional staffing problems, she said.

Still, some jurisdictions have found that longer shifts make more sense. Fairfax has been on 12-hour shifts for 15 years. Steve Souder, the director of public safety communications, said that most dispatchers prefer to work longer hours and have more time off between shifts to decompress. But he acknowledges that staffing is always an issue; in Fairfax there are 24 vacancies.

“I don’t know of any 911 center in the nation that is fully staffed,” he said. “We are losing people and seeking people in the same breath.”

Loudoun County is considering extending shifts from eight hours to 12.

But there is concern that the growing complexity of the job is having a harsher effect on dispatchers even as they are working for longer stretches of time. Technological changes mean that the job for about 600 dispatchers in the region is about to become more complicated and taxing.

In the next few years, call centers around the region and country will move toward a 911 system that can incorporate text, images and video as well as phone calls. Known as Next Generation 911, the system development is a goal that goes back more than a decade but is only now being tested in a handful of centers in the United States.

Many dispatchers see the move as necessary for a world in which people increasingly text rather than talk. But they wonder how analyzing new types of information, perhaps including violent crime scenes, will change an already difficult job.

“It’s a whole new way of dispatching,” said Charlynn Flaherty, director of public safety communications in Prince George’s. “Imagine seeing video of a baby not breathing or a person being shot. There’s going to be a lot of emotion to deal with on a personal level.”

The coming changes, current stress and increasing call volume has led many dispatchers to press for growing awareness of their job hazards. Coles, the Arlington dispatcher, said it is important that dispatchers receive the same appreciation extended to other public safety officials.

“When the mayor and the sheriff and the chief of police stand up” and thank officers and firefighters, she said, “I would just love to hear someone say, ‘I would like to thank all the dispatchers, all the call-takers.’ ”

Rachel Weiner covers cops and courts in Arlington and Alexandria.
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