One Thursday evening, I answered a ringing phone, noting the call wait time as 15 seconds.
“911, Do you need police, fire or medical?”
A panicked man began to tell me that there was a suspicious person in front of his residence, yelling for help. The caller peered through his door’s peephole, and said the subject was bleeding all over his porch and yelling that he had been stabbed. I upgraded the call to urgent and asked all the mandatory questions that a good operator would – Where? When? Weapons?
I sent the call in for police and medical dispatch and kept the caller on the line for updates. I asked whether he was willing to go out front and help the man bleeding out right in front of him; the caller said he didn’t feel comfortable.
“How about now?” I asked. “What is he doing now? Is he still yelling? What can you see?”
To the caller, my questions may have seemed redundant or a waste of time. When someone calls 911, they are often frantic. They don’t realize all the coordination that has to happen to send the needed help.
For example, I never spoke with police and ambulance dispatchers directly. Instead, I typed everything into our computer-aided dispatch system. More information helped me add emphasis and urgency to my notes (which appeared in all caps, no matter what).
When the ambulance arrived, I thanked the caller for his help and hung up. I inhaled a deep breath and glanced at the clock. I was still in the opening minutes of my 10-hour shift. I took a sip of my coffee and tuned back into the phones. A few of the phone lines were already ringing.
* * *
This week, a 911 operator in Albuquerque made news, and not the good kind. Operator Matthew Sanchez took a call from 17-year-old Esperanza Quintero, whose friend had been shot. The call ended abruptly after Quintero cursed at him in a moment of frustration.
“I’m not gonna deal with this, okay?” Sanchez said before hanging up.
In situations like these, people are quick to judge. But I’m sympathetic. Of course, the way Sanchez handled the call was completely unacceptable – cold, heartless and in direct violation of his primary function as an emergency operator. But I would be lying to you if I said that operators never become complacent after repeated exposure to death. Sure, I’ve never witnessed a death with my eyes. But my ears have a lifetime of stories.
When I first became a 911 operator for a central Florida law enforcement agency in 2009, I thought the job was a perfect fit for a college student like me. I needed a job that was flexible and gave me the chance to work nights and weekends to balance my school commitments. I was pursuing a degree in psychology and knew this job would provide some opportunity to develop and practice counseling skills. And the idea of being a 911 operator filled me with purpose and satisfaction. My job was indispensable. I was saving lives every day.
Three years later, that sense of purpose had been dulled by an onslaught of thousands of calls about noise disturbances, vindictive civil disputes and cellphone butt dials. I can’t tell you the number of times I had short conversations that started as misdials, accidents, or “can you give me the phone number to …” For every moment that I felt I was making a difference to a grateful community, there were 10 calls where I was cursed at, called terrible names or turned into an outlet for venting civilians (mostly for issues I had no control over).
Then there were the exhausting, heart-wrenching conversations I had with people whose loved ones were close to death. A woman whose mother went into cardiac arrest – while they were driving home from her father’s funeral. A child in a wheelchair who accidentally called from a deactivated phone after he and his toddler siblings had been locked in an apartment so his single mom could go to work overnight. A mother who found her 2-year-old at the bottom of a pool. The screams from callers who’d found a family member hanging in their living room.
These were graphic, horrific encounters of people’s worst nightmares. And I knew every detail.
I spent my non-working hours feeling anxious or paranoid; after all, I’d seen the underside of my community. After three years, I grew fearful that I would have nothing left to give to anyone outside of work – friends, family or my fiancé. I remember watching “Conspiracy Theory” and going into a panic attack because of a minor detail triggered a flashback to a call. I was finishing my bachelor’s degree and had taken an abnormal psychology class and learned that there were terms for what I was experiencing: vicarious trauma, occupational distress, emotional fatigue.
When I put my finger on how the job had taken its toll, I knew I needed to step back and do some self-care. Not everyone in the profession is as fortunate. Though there is a mandatory psychological evaluation before you start the job, counseling afterward is always optional. Though operators were encouraged to go through debriefing after a particularly difficult call, most operators didn’t. You don’t want your peers or especially your boss to question whether you can handle your job. Few people actually talk about the real struggle to balance empathy and protecting your heart against the pain of repeated traumatic exposure — operators where I worked fielded as many as 80 calls a day. The truth is that when it comes to facing vicarious trauma, we tell emergency operators across the country to “Deal with it yourself” every day.
Sanchez had been working as an operator for three years before taking that fatal call from Quintero. I wonder how differently that call would have been if he had been trained on the symptoms of emotional fatigue. Perhaps he would have been better at caring for others if he learned to care for himself.