911 Dispatchers Enlist Support Group to Help Cope with Trauma

The group offers classes, stress management and peer support for those who've dealt with critical incidents. After roughly three years, it's grown to include an emphasis on everyday physical and mental wellness.

by Devin Dely, Holland Sentinel, Mich. / August 2, 2019
AP/Lisa Marie Pane

(TNS) — For those who work as 911 operators, it's not a matter of if they're going to hear something traumatic, but when.

"Not everybody can do this job," said Megan Ross, who works as a dispatcher for Ottawa County. "Some people can, some people can't, and there's no middle ground. When we pick up the phone, we don't know what we're going to get."

Ross has spent the last 16 years working for Ottawa County Central Dispatch, acting as the very first responder in countless emergencies. She said when you're taking hundreds of calls a day like that, resilience is the key to being good at the job.

But about eight years ago, Ross responded to a call where an officer was killed in the line of duty, and that affected her in ways she had never planned for.

"It tore me up," she said. "I went into a real nasty time. I was never suicidal, but I went into a real bad space where I was questioning everything I did on the job. It was a constant fear of something happening again, and it was a terrifying place to be in."

About five years after the incident, Ross sat down with her boss to discuss her experience.

"I explained where my head had been when it happened, and how I was disappointed in how management had handled it," she said. "He goes, 'OK, well I also know you well enough to know you're not going to walk in here and say something like this to me unless you have a solution.'"

That meeting sparked the beginning of the very first peer support group for Ottawa County 911 dispatchers. The group allows dispatchers to talk through their experiences on the job, both good and bad, and the group is as much of a preventative measure as it is a therapeutic one.

"I told my director that I would do whatever it took to make sure no other dispatcher ever went through what I went through without the proper support available for them," Ross said.

The group offers a variety of different classes for those who've dealt with critical incidents, as well as stress management and peer support. Since it began roughly three years ago, it's grown to include an emphasis on everyday physical and mental wellness, and more recently, a partnership with Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services.

Bob VandePol is the executive director of the Employee Assistance Program at Pine Rest. He has extensive experience in crisis counseling, having worked with numerous police officers and firefighters over the years.

"They asked for training so that they could develop a peer support team to care for each other after the wear and tear of taking all those bad news calls all the time," VandePol said. "If we can take some of those other stressors off their plate, we believe they can be more focused, healthier, and more consistently compassionate when they receive all those calls."

As VandePol puts it, the peer support team is there for each other, and he and his team are there as a backup, offering counseling resources when dispatchers feel that they're in a crisis.

"Especially traumatic events, there's a very predictable set of symptoms that happen," VandePol said.

Dispatchers have the responsibility of dealing with suicides, murders, and every other kind of tragedy imaginable, and providing the very first assistance in those emergencies.

VandePol says that repeated exposure can take a gradual toll, like someone slowly adding weight to a backpack, going unnoticed until the burden becomes too heavy to bear.

"Imagine you were in the middle of that," he said. "You're not able to sleep well, your appetite is suppressed, (you have) anxiety, fear, irritability — those are common reactions. You don't have to be present, and it doesn't have to be your life in danger in those scenarios. But just being exposed to it can cause what's called secondary traumatization."

However, in this line of work, VandePol says people are often reluctant to seek help.

"People that are in positions where they're supposed to be the ones with the solutions are often the most resistant to asking for help for themselves," he said. "But strong people are secure enough to ask for help without being concerned about how it might appear."

According to Crystal Bakker, a member of the peer support group, getting everyone to see the benefits of the group has taken some work.

"In the past, talking about your feelings and emotions, especially in our line of work was kind of frowned upon," she said. "But now we're swinging to the other end of the spectrum."

The effectiveness of the peer support system was tested early on, when they had what Ross simply describes as a "pretty serious incident" at work.

"For the most part, we didn't even do a whole lot of talking," she said. "It was more listening, and they were able to talk through what they were thinking and feeling."

They were able to simply sit with those who were affected by the incident, allowing them to talk through their thoughts and emotions without judgement.

"We've come a long way since we've started," Ross said. "It's hard because it's new, and people don't like change. It's been a slow process, but we're getting there."

— Contact reporter Devin Dely at ddely@hollandsentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @dely_devin.

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