By Yana Kunichoff
When most of Chicago lays its head down to sleep for the evening is when Vera Edmerson’s watch begins. As a night shift police dispatcher, Edmerson’s job is fielding the worst calls most of us will make - fires, disappearances and grave injuries - before dispatching a police officer to the scene.
She works from a command center at the heart of Chicago’s Office of Emergency Management and Control on the near west side which fields an average of 5 million calls a year, and will spend most of her eight-hour shift at one desk and switching between the phone and the radio. The first level a 911 call that comes in can either be sent to a police dispatcher or a fire and emergency dispatcher. The former is where you’ll find Edmerson - she listens to the radio to hear what is happening during a call, and then contacts a police officer and gives the available information before dispatching them to the scene.
“It’s a very stressful job,” says Edmerson of the job she’s held for the past 19 years. “The calls that we get - a mother with a child that is not breathing, a husband whose wife is not waking up, and of course being in the city of Chicago the various calls of people shot - those types of calls can really sit with you for a long time.”
The job of a police dispatcher in particular has become increasingly tense in recent years as tension around police shootings has risen. The dispatcher in Cleveland who failed to tell officers that 12-year-old Tamir Rice was likely a juvenile has come under criticism, and two dispatchers in Chicago were disciplined - one with a three-day suspension, another for a one-day suspension - for how they handled Quintonio LeGrier’s several phone calls that led up to his fatal shooting by police in December 2015.
But Edmerson and other experts in the 911 dispatch field say that the pressure of 911 dispatch workers jobs are often misunderstood - and that a problem can rarely be looked at in isolation from the system that dispatchers function in. The work is done in a constantly tense environment, with budget cuts hurting resources and a complicated and demanding technological system - and even in this environment the emotional toll may be the most difficult to handle.
A key tension is that the job isn’t often seen with the same gravitas as that of a first-responder who is running to the scene - dispatch workers who took calls in New York during 9/11 were denied mental health coverage by the city - but Edmerson says the position can be just as grueling. The experience is best summed up by something a former police lieutenant she knew used to tell his officers: “you can best believe that when you are doing something that is high priority emergency, when you’re driving real fast, you can best believe that dispatcher is running right behind you.”
Heather Pierce, a professor who teaches 911 dispatch workers at Elgin Community College and co-author of a seminal study into 911 workers and PTSD, says her study, which found that 911 workers can develop PTSD from indirect exposure to trauma, was ground-breaking because people often thought of dispatcher jobs as closer to that of a secretary. Instead, she says, their positions are more akin to first responders who are doing their best in a job that is “often underfunded and understaffed.” Within that environment, “they’re expected to do a lot more than one person can really do.”
The job descriptions for police dispatchers I - those who take the initial call - has a bevy of essential duties that deal with life-and-death, including processing calls of suicidal individuals, operating two screens simultaneously, determine which of many brackets the call falls into and whether it’s of criminal nature, interfacing with multiple databases and return calls. For police dispatcher II - Edmerson’s job - the duties range from dispatching officers to the scene of a crime or emergency to monitoring the status of active dispatch assignments and training new hires.
Unsurprisingly, the emotional toll of the position isn’t explicitly stated - and the supervising police commander job description stipulates that anyone in the position must have knowledge of police manuals, dispatch communication systems and geographical locations, but fails to mention any concerns about the stress of the position.
Most OEMC workers will have to handle a load of overtime during their time at the agency - Jerry Rankin, of the unionXXX, estimates that the average worker can do up to 20 hours of voluntary overtime at time-and-a-half pay. Less accepted, he says, is the involuntary overtime that workers are often asked to cover. In its review of the labor status of dispatch workers, the Department of Labor notes that overtime is common - but that the stressful nature of the job and the turnover it causes actually keeps the job prospects positive - “job prospects should be good because the stressful nature of the job results in many workers leaving this occupation.”
The Police Task Force charged with solving the city’s various police-related crisis also noted that there may not be enough staff to allow OEMC in Chicago to focus on accuracy of calls, rather than speed, when dealing with mental health calls in particular. “Insufficient manpower may contribute to this emphasis on speed, at the expense of accurate identification of mental health calls and the quality of response,” the 2016 report found.
Dispatchers positions are also unique because stress is nearly constant, say experts. Heather Pierce’s research paper - along with another professor from Northern Illinois University - found that direct physical exposure wasn’t always the best predictor of a worker feeling traumatized. Another study, published in 2015 in the Annals of Emergency Dispatch & Response, found that the rates of dispatch workers exposure to trauma exceeds that of emergency first responders and, by extension, their rates of PTSD may be even higher.
Jim Marshall, a clinical psychotherapist who now heads the 911 Wellness Foundation aimed at supporting and improving the health of 911 dispatchers, said that one of the difficulties is that unlike first responders, dispatcher workers have very little change to prepare themselves before plunging into an intense situation. “They don’t have any psychological prep before a woman in her headset is screaming that her baby is not breathing,” said Marshall, coupled with the lack to physically impact the situation. “What matters most to the telecommunicator is that everyone goes home safe - and yet it is the very thing over which they have no control.”
Similarly, a consistent complaint is the lack of closure - unlike a responder on the scene, dispatchers rarely find out how a particular case was resolved. Paul Linee, who has both managed dispatch centers and been a dispatcher himself, said that the average caller in Minneapolis, where he was the Director of Emergency Communications, answered upwards of 150 calls each shift, and almost never found out what happened to any of them. “While you are talking to this party you may have developed some sort of bond,” said Linee, “but you never know did you do the right thing, did you do the best thing, how did it turn out?”
Edmerson is familiar with the dilemma. “You want to know what happened. A lot of the time call takers come over and go, I sent that call, do you know what happened? Sometimes we know, sometimes we don’t know,” she says.
When something goes wrong in a high stakes situation, the fact that dispatchers every move is recorded, and that they can be held responsible even though they’re not an actor on the scene, ups the stress level. Most emergency management centers have all calls recorded and in Chicago, says Edmerson, she’s seen supervisors pull up calls and occasionally videos to review a performance.
In case of a suit that includes a dispatcher, some localities, like the San Francisco area, have liability protection laws on the books. The protection varies wildly, however, and dispatchers have been held liable in a handful of cases. In a 2000 case called Gant vs. City of Chicago, dispatchers were held liable for not providing CPR instructions, an act which the plaintiff argued led to her son’s death. Chicago OEMC did not respond to requests for comment on its system for handling complaints or what, if any, liability protection laws are on the books.
For the emotional weight, says Edmerson, Chicago offers a peer-to-peer support network that trains employee volunteers who are available during shifts. She says the city additionally offers trauma leave for dispatchers.
But it may not be enough. Heather Pierce, who put together the seminal PTSD study, says peer support is not sufficient. “Being in a supportive environment helps, but if someone has a mental health disorder they need professional health. PTSD is a chronic disorder.”
Jim Marshall, of the 911 Wellness Foundation, says peer support can be a good step in helping workers, but he recommends a more thorough support system. “There must be a comprehensive plan that is based on what we know about how to take care of people and equip them to take care of themselves,” he says. “Peer support must be properly trained and administered in order to be effective.” And the stakes, he says, are high. “These are just human beings in an incredibly, ridiculously demanding role, in the worst moments of all of our lives. We’ve got to make sure they have the health care they need.”
The changing perception of the position - the realization that it’s a skilled and difficult job - is slowly contributing to growing supports for employees, says Greg Scott, with 911 training that takes into consideration emotional toll slowly making its way into some localities. “There’s a slow but gradual realization that the 911 dispatcher is a much more integral part of the public safety and emergency response system than has been recognized in the past.”
He points to the EAP - Employee Assistance Program - which XXXXX
The Police Task Force Report has suggested that OEMC data systems be upgraded to utilize data from prior calls to provide details such as personal history that can help a caller identify mental health calls.While it may provide a more comprehensive answer from the dispatcher, it’s unclear whether this suggestion could affect one of the key frustrations of the position - lack of closure.
The city will also soon be going through significant changes to how 911 functions - primarily NextGen 911, a system that allows people to contact 911 through a broader array of media, including photos, videos and text messages. Alicia Tate-Nadeau, the recently director of OEMC, told City Bureau that when the agency takes up a new technology, she wants to think about how it affects people. “I believe whenever I go to any new organization my focus is on finding the balance between technology and ensuring that people have the best training possible. If you don't have those two in parallel then you don't have a healthy organization,” she says.
But this is unlikely to impact the psychological pressure faced by dispatchers, most experts agreed.
Edmerson would like to see a system that’s similar to that of critical incident stress management, which XXXXX.
National Emergency Number Association (“NENA”) has established standards for implementing a Comprehensive Stress Management Program (“CSMP”).371- suggested by police task force report.
And, really, more respect.
“Most people with my degree level can’t get a job with the base pay that I get,” she says, “but it’s a lot of the respect factor that we lack.” She wants people to remember that even though she may be sitting in a chair doing her work, she is still heart and soul in every scene. “People underestimate that just because we are inside we are not going through anything, but we are with the traffic pursuit, we are with that officer in a foot chase, hollering for assistance. We are just as amped up.”