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Giving credit to 911 operators | Guest Column
Long hours and life-and-death calls create stressful working conditions for Kitsap County’s 911 emergency workers.
Police officers, fire fighters, and other first responders are rightfully applauded for their self-sacrifice on the job. Often, though, 911 call receivers and dispatchers — the first line of communication in an emergency situation — don’t receive the same recognition or attention.
In Kitsap County, every first responder dispatched to an emergency scene gets there by way of members of the Kitsap 911 Guild. Despite the long shifts handling life-and-death situations, sometimes with just minutes or seconds between calls, these highly trained and dedicated individuals love their jobs and the good that they’re able to do in the community. The downside is that devotion could lead to long-term personal harm.
“Like all of my co-workers, I value the opportunity to do the job; to be able to provide a light in what are often a person’s darkest moments. This job is rewarding and fulfilling, but being exposed to human tragedy day-in and day-out, leaves a scar; one that isn’t easily brushed aside,” said Carlea Dill, an emergency tele-communicator since 2006.
According to a study published in 2012 by Northern Illinois University, 911 dispatchers and receivers were just as likely as police and firefighters to experience Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The events these individuals are routinely exposed to can increase stress levels and overall feelings of fear and helplessness. In addition, being tethered to a computer and phone means, unlike first responders, 911 workers never get the opportunity during the course of their shifts to work off nervous energy.
And the worst part, according to Scott Caldwell, a dispatcher at Cencom since 2000, is rarely knowing what happens after help arrives.
“It’s like never being able to find out the ending to a story. We don’t know if the person on the other end of the line made it, if they’re safe. That, especially in intense situations, can wreak havoc with your emotions,” said Caldwell.
According to Dill, the emotional and mental strains of the job make down time all the more important. Unfortunately, because Kitsap 911 is short-staffed, getting adequate time off can be an issue. Even in today’s competitive job market, the solution isn’t as easy as putting out a job posting: while there’s no shortage of applicants, most can’t get past the rigorous requirements and training.
For example, it takes two years of classes and on-the-job training before new recruits are completely “signed off” to take 911 calls and dispatch police, fire and aid calls to first responders.
“Our job can be fascinating and very satisfying, but there is a price: the intensity of the things you hear and deal with while on shift can make you feel isolated from family and friends. It is a tough thing to deal with, but my co-workers and I are a fraternity that’s proud and grateful to be able to contribute in such a significant way to this community,” Caldwell said.
Submitted by Laura Woodrum, president, Kitsap 911 Guild