In Times of Emergency, Exactly Who Is That Voice on the Other End of the Line?

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Inside the stressful, underappreciated job of a 911 dispatcher.

By Yana Kunichoff


(Photo: _Misael_/Flickr)

Eugenia Legg had just started the afternoon shift when the call came in. The dispatch room was relatively quiet — rather than the usual cacophony of telephone rings, there was a stillness in the air.

And then she answered the phone. Almost immediately, her ears pulsed in shock. The speaker — a woman — was screaming, a high-pitched shriek that pierced through the background murmur of the office. The screams were so loud — so endless — Legg had a difficult time getting the basic information she needed: Was she hurt? Where was she? Did they need to send someone?

“She is screaming and hollering and not making any sense,” Legg recalls. “I’m saying, ‘Ma’am what’s wrong?’ I’m trying to talk her down.” At the same time as Legg was dealing with her hysterical speaker, another dispatcher received a call, this one about a police officer shot. It registered from the same address as Legg’s caller. Finally, amid the shrieks, Legg managed to ask: “Is there a police officer shot there?” Here, the caller quieted down for a moment to reply: “You don’t help him. You help me.”

The woman on Legg’s line had shot and killed her husband, a Chicago police officer. “It really affected me in the worst kind of way,” Legg says. “I couldn’t sleep, I was second-guessing myself on the phone calls.”

Though dramatic, this isn’t altogether unusual. As a night shift police dispatcher, it’s Legg’s job to field the calls most people hope to never place — reporting fires, disappearances, injuries, even death — before dispatching a police officer to the scene.

Legg works from a command center at the heart of Chicago’s Office of Emergency Management and Control on the city’s West Side. Manned by dispatchers like Legg, OEMC fields some five million calls per year. She will spend most of her eight-hour shift at one desk, switching between the phone and the radio. She listens to the radio to monitor the first call taken by the dispatcher — the thrum of the city’s quickening heartbeat in a moment of stress — and then contacts a police officer and supplies any available information before dispatching them to the scene. (There are two types of dispatchers: those who take calls, and those who pass information on to police officers.) For nearly two decades, this has been her job.

“The calls that we get can really sit with you for a long time.”

“It’s a very stressful job,” says Legg (who asked to use a pseudonym for fear of retaliation for speaking on the record). “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.”

As tension around police shootings has grown, so too has scrutiny of police dispatchers. The dispatcher in Cleveland who failed to tell officers that 12-year-old Tamir Rice was likely a juvenile has come under criticism. In February 2016, two dispatchers in Chicago were disciplined — one with a three-day suspension, another with a one-day suspension — for their controversial handling of phone calls placed by Quintonio LeGrier in December 2015 — calls that eventually ended in the fatal police shooting of LeGrier and his neighbor Bettie Jones.

But Legg and other dispatchers say their jobs are often misunderstood, and the criticisms levied against them are misguided at best. Their work is performed in a constantly tense environment, using a complicated and demanding technological system, under the looming threat of budget cuts (nearly 200 staffers were cut in 2012, though OEMC says 35 percent of them have since been hired back). The exposure of 911 dispatchers to disturbing experiences over a long period of time can lead to bouts of trauma, a suffering that’s only compounded by the lack of professional help provided to them. That can have grave implications — under the conditions of trauma, psychologists say, the ability to remain calm at a critical moment could be compromised.

And that compromise can put lives at stake.

The role of police dispatcher isn’t often treated with the same gravitas as that of a first responder who is running to the scene. But Legg says the position can be just as grueling.

In 2012, Heather Pierce, a professor who teaches 911 dispatch workers at Elgin Community College, released a seminal study on 911 workers and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Her study was one of the first to look at the levels of peritraumatic distress, the precursor to PTSD, for 911 dispatch workers, and found that they regularly experience the highest level of peritraumatic distress. In short: 911 dispatchers can develop PTSD from indirect exposure to trauma.

According to Pierce’s study, direct physical exposure wasn’t always the best predictor of a dispatch worker feeling traumatized. This research is padded by another study, published in 2015, which 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, who heads the 911 Wellness Foundation, a non-profit aimed at supporting and improving the health of 911 dispatchers, says that unlike field responders, dispatchers have very little chance to prepare themselves before plunging into an intense situation. “They don’t have any psychological prep before a woman is screaming into the headset that her baby is not breathing,” Marshall says. “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.”

Dispatchers consistently complain about a lack of closure — unlike a responder, dispatchers rarely find out whether a particular case was resolved. According to Paul Linee, who has both managed dispatch centers and been a dispatcher himself, the average dispatcher in Minneapolis (where he was the director of emergency communications) answered upwards of 150 calls each shift. They 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,” Linee says, “but you never know: Did you do the right thing? Did you do the best thing? How did it turn out?”

Most emergency management centers have all calls recorded. In Chicago, Legg says she’s seen supervisors pull up calls and occasionally videos to review a dispatcher’s performance — the constant threat of which only ups stress levels. Similarly, most employees at Chicago’s OEMC will have to handle a lot of overtime, which also increases tension on the job. Jerry Rankins, chief negotiator for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 21, which bargains on behalf of Chicago’ OEMC workers, says the average employee is often mandated to work overtime, which means up to an additional four hours after a shift ends.

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 2000’s Gant vs. City of Chicago, dispatchers were held liable for not providing CPR instructions, an act the plaintiff argued led to her son’s death. (Asked about what liability protections are on the books for Chicago 911 dispatchers, OEMC spokeswoman Therese Kordelewski writes: “OEMC handles complaints internally as soon as we are made aware of a complaint and then investigates the matter.”)

“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.”

For the emotional weight, Chicago offers a peer-to-peer support network that trains employee volunteers who are available during shifts. She says the city also offers trauma leave for dispatchers and an employee assistance program, which is a voluntary mental-health support program. Through the employee assistance program, counseling is available on an individual bases, though it’s unclear how comprehensive or specialized this counseling is.

But that may not be enough. 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 help. PTSD is a chronic disorder,” she says.

After developing residual stress from her work, Legg began to experience trouble sleeping. That, in turn, affected her job performance. After nearly a year of suffering,she took an anger management class outside of work to cope. She says that she’d like to see a system similar to critical incident stress management, a psychological coping process focused on trauma and used to offer behaviors to help an individual move from one incident to the next. Such a system doesn’t currently exist within the OEMC.

The misconceived public perception of the position as unessential has long impacted the publicly funded aid available for dispatchers to receive — dispatch workers who took calls in New York during 9/11 were denied mental health coverage by the city. Greg Scott, an operations research analyst at the International Academies of Emergency Dispatch, sees dispatchers slowly gaining respect among their colleagues and the public at large — a fact, he says, that is slowly contributing to growing supports for employees.

But the changing opinion of the job — the realization that it’s a skilled and difficult job — is slowly contributing to growing support for employees, according to Scott. “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 says.

The National Emergency Number Association, meanwhile, has established standards for implementing a comprehensive stress management program for dispatchers, which could include both physical and mental supports.

In a job that’s part counselor, part operator, it’s important that dispatchers feel respected. “Most people with my degree level can’t get a job with the base pay that I get,” Legg says, “but it’s a lot of the respect factor that we lack. We are with the traffic pursuit, we are with that officer in a foot chase, hollering for assistance.”

This story was produced in partnership with City Bureau, a Chicago-based journalism lab.