We've Only Just Begun

Becca Barrus

Becca Barrus

Case Exit

When asked what her review of emergency dispatch research shows, Melissa Alterio, Director of Emergency Communications at Cobb County 911 (Georgia, USA), said, “There’s not enough of it!”

She has a point. Emergency dispatch as a profession is relatively young. The field of emergency dispatch research is even younger, which means that there’s much less research on emergency dispatch than there is on other parts of emergency response.

While getting her master’s degree, Alterio was given the opportunity to write a master’s thesis report. If you’re not familiar with research processes and terminology, there’s more ways to write a thesis than collecting and analyzing your own data. Instead, she did a literature review where she looked at the papers that had already been written about emergency dispatch and put analyses of them in one place. “Peer Support Programs – Mitigating the Emotional Effects of Vicarious Trauma Experienced by 911 Dispatchers” is a 40-page summary of the top research in the field, including papers by authors like Dr. Michelle Lilly, Capt. Kevin Haight, Jeremy DeMar, and Kim Rigden.

One of Alterio’s purposes in writing her paper was to make a resource for other 911 professionals. Rather than going out and gathering all that information by themselves, they can take what Alterio’s written to their bosses to show that it is well worth it to put funding into implementing peer support programs. Anecdotal evidence is one thing, but it’s hard to say no to a collection of cold, hard data.

The paper isn’t all numbers and graphs. Alterio wanted to get readers hooked and to help them understand the underlying humanity of emergency dispatch, so she begins it with the story of a woman she worked with named Gloria. Gloria dispatched for the FDNY (New York City) on Sept. 11, 2001, and was in her seat from 6:45 a.m. until 7:00 p.m., sending out teams that would never come home to the sites of the World Trade Center attacks. It took a toll on Gloria, who left the FDNY not long afterward. In her new center, she was seen as standoffish, but once Alterio got to know her, she was amazed by her story and by how she was able to keep dispatching. And Gloria’s professional burden was not just having worked one immensely traumatic event: It was amplified by the effects of compassion fatigue coming from constantly carrying the weight of other people’s worst days.

What does the research show (aside from the fact that there’s not enough of it)? Job burnout, turnover rates, secondary trauma, and other mental health issues are extremely prominent in this profession. “The need for peer support is a necessity,” Alterio said. “It’s not a want anymore.”

While Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) and Critical Incident Stress Debriefings (CISDs) are helpful, they should be supplemented by peer support programs. It’s often difficult for emergency dispatchers to explain the weight of their profession and everyday experiences to people who haven’t lived it. Who is better qualified to support them than their peers?

If you’d like to learn more about Alterio’s paper, listen to her speak about it on her episode of Dispatch in Depth, “The Importance of Peer Support Programs with Melissa Alterio.” You can also read the paper in its entirety on ResearchGate.net.

Author’s note: Research isn’t one author boasting about how they’re the smartest person in the world and the foremost expert on the topic—it’s a conversation. Alterio gathered the conversations that had already taken place about mental health and emergency dispatch, and she moved it forward. You don’t have to know everything about emergency dispatch to join the conversation either. Just bring the expertise you have and add to what’s already being said. The pool of emergency dispatch research is so small; we need people like you to contribute to it! For more information, visit AEDRJournal.org.