Tracey Barron

Academic Research

By Tracey Barron

Preliminary findings from the research survey distributed at NAVIGATOR 2014 adds to the growing body of literature that indicates stress, from secondary exposure to emotional trauma, is an occupational hazard for fire, police, and medical dispatchers.

Significant findings from the survey indicate dispatchers experience a level of secondary traumatic stress that is 30 percent greater than the level experienced by registered nurses participating in a study using the same criteria.

Dispatchers’ levels of burnout are also greater, with nearly one-quarter (24.83 percent) of respondents exhibiting various stages of Compassion Fatigue, a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress, compared to 22 percent of RNs in a similar study.

In addition, 17 percent of the 189 respondents completing the survey at NAVIGATOR met criteria for Acute Stress Disorder (ASD) related to incidents occurring in the 30 days prior to taking the survey.

The study defines ASD as acute stress reactions, “that may occur in the initial month after a person is exposed to a traumatic event.” The disorder includes symptoms of intrusion [unwelcome and pervasive memories], dissociation [detachment from immediate surroundings], negative mood [irritable state of mind], avoidance [withdrawing from social action], and arousal [strong reaction to stimuli].

Incidents contributing to the reported ASD involved the secondary traumatic stress dispatchers experienced from helping callers seeking emergency assistance during a typhoon (7 percent), industrial accidents (6 percent), and assaults and burns (13 percent).

Although the 189 responses represent only a segment of the number of individuals expected to contribute data for the study, the results nearly mirror findings from Roberta Troxell’s 2008 study of 497 Illinois emergency dispatchers. In that study, 16.3 percent acknowledged symptoms consistent with Compassion Fatigue (CF), defined as a condition in which a person experiences struggles with work-related secondary traumatic stress symptoms and burnout.1

Other findings include an assessment of organizational factors and types of calls that result in the greatest sources of stress:

•Workload, followed by lack of appreciation from management, and lack of training were found to be the primary sources of organizational stress. No participant found poor communication among staff to be a source of stress.

•Traffic accidents were rated as the most stressful type of call to handle, followed by suicide, calls involving injured children, structure fires, and first-party callers (the rankings were based on calls answered in the 30 days prior to the survey and not inclusive of calls taken over a dispatcher’s career).

•The majority of study participants dispatch for all three services (fire, police, and medical), while the majority of respondents handling only one type of service dispatched for EMS. Of the 189 total respondents, 133 were female and 56 were male. Almost one-quarter (50) reported working as a dispatcher for 13 to 19 years.

Results indicating a dispatcher’s quality of life from the responses provided were determined by applying the Professional Quality of Life Scale (ProQOL), a commonly used measure of the negative and positive affects of helping others experiencing a traumatic incident. The ProQOL has subscales for compassion satisfaction, burnout, and CF.

Not surprisingly, the factors causing compassion satisfaction are the same as those causing CF: providing care, the system, work colleagues, and beliefs about self.

The study is a collaborative effort between the International Academies of Emergency Dispatch(IAED) and a team led by principal investigator Clint Bowers, Ph.D., from the University of Central Florida (UCF).

Bowers co-directs the UCF Recent and Emerging Technology Research Organization (RETRO) and specializes in research involving the nature of effective teamwork and factors influencing cooperation.

Comprehensive results of the study will be published in the IAED’s scientific journal, the Annals of Emergency Dispatch & Response.


1Troxell R. “Indirect Exposure to the Trauma of Others: The Experience of 9-1-1 Telecommunicators.” 2008. (accessed July 28, 2014).