Underneath The Headset

Danissa Alston

Guest Writer

The job of an emergency dispatcher is often stressful and thankless. Very few people outside of the public safety field know what emergency dispatchers do. Even within the public safety industry, there can still be a lack of understanding about what the job entails.

Emergency dispatchers spend countless hours processing and dispatching calls that range from mundane parking complaints to heart-stopping life-or-death crises. Of the available literature concerning this profession, much is focused on the stress of the job: the high-stress, low-frequency incidents, the “real” traumatic calls—the attention-grabbers.

What the literature seldom discusses is the person under the headset: the seemingly small components that amalgamate into mental health concerns, physical health issues, and interpersonal complications. Outside the walls of the PSAP, emergency dispatchers return to a world full of stresses. They fall back into the role of parent, spouse, caregiver, adult, still wounded from the emotional injuries the workplace bestowed on them.

How are these wounds attended to? Historically, it has been through avoidance, compartmentalization, and/or substance use. Lately, there has been a shift in the tide. PSAPs around the nation, and the world, are vocalizing their prioritization of emergency dispatchers’ mental health.

But what is mental health? Most people understand it to be a culmination of one’s cognitive, emotional, and physical well-being. It is widely accepted that impairments to one’s mental health can significantly influence one’s behavior, and it is collectively agreed that one’s identity can either mitigate or exacerbate the circumstances they must navigate through their lived experiences.

To truly maximize the effectiveness of this wellness shift, the industry must adopt a perspective that incorporates the emotional harm and chronic stress faced in day-to-day floor operations, coupled with the psychological baggage each emergency dispatcher brings through the door. This type of approach requires all parties (emergency dispatchers, management, stakeholders, etc.) to take hard honest looks in the mirror.

What psychosocial, emotional, and behavioral predispositions did the emergency dispatcher have when entering this field? How, if at all, did those predispositions lead them to this field? Who is the emergency dispatcher outside of their job? What intersectionality do they manage? What responsibilities are they struggling to fulfill? When it all comes to a head, and feels overwhelming, what is to be done?

Find a mental health professional to talk to. If your PSAP doesn’t have a clinician on staff or an in-house Employee Assistance Program (EAP), there are a plethora of licensed mental health professionals available through insurance networks and private practice.

Tips for finding a mental health match include:

  1. Figuring out which style is most effective for you. Do you prefer conversational exchanges, or primarily one-way dialoging? Assigned homework, such as worksheets and journals, or skill development and maintenance? Understanding the why, or focusing on the what?
  2. Determining the preferred qualities of the practitioner. Decide whether it is of significance that the practitioner shares common identity (i.e., race, gender, religion). Often, people feel more comfortable speaking with those whom they believe may have had similar lived experiences in privilege or oppression. However, caution should be exercised in this area.
    1. Cultural competence: Some may argue that people should find a clinician who makes their alliances and positions known (especially if they are personally affiliated with public safety). However, a skilled and culturally competent clinician should be able to leave their own prejudices aside and focus on their client as a whole person. The ability to empathize should not be restricted to perceived commonality.
  3. Being honest about why counseling services are sought. Even if the vocabulary to articulate the issue is not present, at least start by conveying the desired goal.