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NIU psychology study links 9-1-1 dispatchers with post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms

March 29, 2012

Homicides, suicides, domestic violence, car crashes.

For most people, it’s the stuff of nightmares. For busy 9-1-1 emergency dispatchers, it’s all in a day’s work.

Now a new study by researchers at Northern Illinois University suggests that the on-the-job, indirect exposure to trauma puts dispatchers at risk for developing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“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 published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress.

PTSD is an anxiety disorder that can occur after a traumatic event. It is more commonly associated with combat veterans or frontline emergency workers, such as police officers and firefighters.

Lilly said the new research is the first published study to reveal the extent of on-duty emotional distress experienced by dispatchers. The findings will likely contribute to a current debate over how trauma is defined.

“The NIU study suggests that one does not need to be physically present during a traumatic event, or to even know the victim of a trauma, in order for the event to cause significant mental health challenges,” Lilly said. “The findings indicated the need for a broader definition and understanding of what might constitute a traumatic event.”

Heather Pierce and Michelle Lilly

Heather Pierce and Michelle Lilly

Lilly conducted the study with her former student, NIU research associate Heather Pierce, who worked for more than a decade as an emergency dispatcher in Chicago’s western suburbs. Her observations and experiences as an emergency dispatcher piqued her interest in the topic and helped shape the study.

Dispatchers are responsible for answering multiple phone lines and radio channels. During a typical shift, Pierce recalled, phones would ring persistently while the police radio buzzed with activity.

“Callers to 9-1-1 dispatchers are often experiencing an emotional crisis and are hysterical,” she said. “Telecommunicators are under enormous pressure to control their own emotions while extracting the pertinent information, securing the emergency scene and communicating with multiple agencies—sometimes during life-and-death situations.

“Afterward, there’s little time to process what happened,” she added. “You have to press on and get right back to work.”

For their study, the researchers analyzed the responses of 171 on-the-job emergency dispatchers from 24 states. The majority of the sample was female and Caucasian, with an average age of 38 and more than 11 years of service.

The dispatchers participating in the survey were asked about the types of potentially traumatic calls they handle and the amount of emotional distress they experienced. They were also asked to rate the types of calls that caused the most distress and to remember the worst call they had dealt with during their careers.

The most commonly identified worst calls were the unexpected injury or death of a child (16.4 percent of respondents), followed by suicidal callers (12.9 percent), shootings involving officers (9.9 percent) and calls involving the unexpected death of an adult (9.9 percent).

Survey results showed that dispatchers experience high levels of “peritraumatic distress,” the strong emotions felt during a traumatic event. Participants reported experiencing fear, helplessness or horror in reaction to nearly one-third of the different types of potentially traumatic calls.

A “moderate relationship” was found between the dispatchers’ emotional response and PTSD symptom severity, with 3.5 percent of the survey participants reporting symptoms severe enough to qualify for a diagnosis of PTSD.

“Being a 911 dispatcher is generally considered a stressful profession,” Pierce said. “However, the results from our study indicate the events typically handled by these first responders are also traumatic, and there can be adverse mental health effects. This implies a strong need to enhance prevention and intervention efforts.”