“9-1-1, What is your emergency?"
"My son is trapped by the car."
The woman’s voice on the other end of the line was borderline hysterical. She was going to lose it at any moment.
"What is the address of the emergency?" I asked.
My fingers furiously flew over the keyboard. As she spoke the street address and name, I glanced at my ALI/ANI. It matched and I double-tapped enter to get the information to cross-over onto my computer.
"How old is your son?"
"He's four. Only four," she stated, the hysterics creeping closer to the surface. "My husband backed up. He didn't see him. Oh, my God. He's trapped. Please help. He's between the car and the garage by the wheel. I don't think he's breathing. Please help him. Please help him."
A predominately medical call, I quickly transferred her over to fire dispatch. I assured the woman help was on the way (I had send the information over to our dispatch for broadcast to any officer close by) and relayed the information I had to fire. As fire began questioning the mother, the distraught woman lost her fight with control. She began sobbing uncontrollably. As the officers and medics were on the way, I listened as fire gave the mother instructions and the mother continued to sob.
"His hair... His hair is covered in blood. There's so much blood," she said an eerie calm suddenly taking over her voice. An image of my son flashed into my head. A bubbly, blonde-haired four year-old full of life. I immediately tucked that thought and any emotion relating to it away into a mental compartment. This ability to compartmentalize allowed me to continue taking 9-1-1 calls day after day.
After the recent Aurora theater shooting during “The Dark Knight Rises,” media praised the heroics of local emergency communications operators. 9-1-1 Dispatcher Kathie Stauffer explained to NBC that to remain calm and professional while handling traumatic situations, “You have to mentally break away. You can’t identify too much.” After the event was over, only then, did she allow herself to think about her own children.
Like other first responders, emergency telecommunications operators must detach from their emotions in order to not only complete the tasks their job requires in the moment but also to survive the work. During our work, we take any troubling thoughts, especially those that attempt to relate with the person on the other end of the line, and the normal feelings of sadness, anger, empathy and even compassion and tuck them away. While she handled call after call from terrified movie patrons that night, Kathie just did her job. She attempted to reassure people and comfort them. It was only after the phones stopped ringing and she hung up her head-set that the emotion flooded out from its carefully controlled compartment. She now allowed herself to think about her own children and as she related to NBC how she maintained her composure she allowed the tears to escape.
Coping with Trauma
Psychologists describe compartmentalizing as a coping mechanism that allows people to disassociate from normal feelings. Common application describes people who unconsciously tuck away feelings that create conflict with their values or beliefs so that they can act in opposition to them but this same psychological concept is performed day after day in 9-1-1 call centers around the world. To cope with what we hear, we have to disassociate from normal emotion. If I became hysterical right alongside that mother whose son was crushed by her husband’s car, I would be worthless in getting her the help she needed.
Consequences of Compartmentalization
Like Stauffer stated, remaining professional and calm requires us to compartmentalize. But what does that mean later? What happens to the operator after the call or after the thousands of calls he or she takes in a career? If a person compartmentalizes their emotion and doesn’t bring it back out to resolve it, the physical and mental consequences can be enormous.