A funny thing happened on the way to writing this article. I found myself looking at my computer, knowing I had the information I needed to put my experience and research onto paper, having a deadline looming (I usually work best under stress. Must be the first responder in me) and all I could do was just stare blankly into space. I was exhausted. Not physically. In fact, I could have gone to the gym and my muscles would have performed with all the vigor they usually do. It was a massive mental and emotional exhaustion brought on by days and days of continuous care of others. Ironically, I sat staring at the blank page trying to talk myself through the apathy and finish the article I wanted to write about first responders, particularly emergency communications operators and the effects of being carers.
Emergency communication operators are carers. This term isn’t as common in American English as it is across the pond and down under. In fact, I first came upon the term carer in an article written by an Australian psychologist who I had the fun privilege of showing around town when he came to visit a close friend and our agency founder. It means exactly how it sounds. Carers are people who work in occupations where they care for other people. I doubt anyone could argue that those of us who answer 9-1-1 calls and work police, fire and EMS radios do so because we care. If it was just about the physical tasks of the work, we would be tow truck dispatchers or switchboard operators for the phone company. We choose to work helping others. We care about our communities and the citizens and officers we assist. Most of us are invested and care deeply about doing the best job we can every time we put on our head-set. Although we are trained to be dispassionate and calm while handling other people’s emergencies, this doesn’t mean that we are unfeeling or that we are unaffected by the trauma we hear on a daily basis. We are not cold, uncaring auto-matrons pushing buttons. We often relate to our callers. We feel sympathy for what they are going through. Sometimes we want to cry or scream with them. We don’t because we are professionals, but we want to. It is precisely because of our roles as carers that we get emotionally, physically and mentally affected by our work.
Compassion fatigue has been described as “the cost of caring”. Individuals who work in occupations where they care for others run the risk of being profoundly affected. This can be due to direct exposure to traumatic events, such as that experienced by police officers, fire fighters and EMTs or secondary exposure which occurs when a person hears another talk about the trauma they have experienced. In my opinion, emergency communications operators experience a hybrid of exposure. True, we are not on-scene seeing the tragedy first-hand. The 9-1-1 operator is linked to the scene through hearing. We often hear horrific things happening, such as a shooting victim taking their last breath and succumbing to a sucking chest wound with their children screaming in the background. We have heard suicidal subjects give up and take their lives after we have been unable to convince them of another option or to even just wait until the officer gets there. Operators have heard people burn to death, sob hysterically in terror while locked in a closet during a burglary or blood-curdling screams from a person trapped in their crumpled vehicle after an accident. We are there and not there all at the same time. And believe me, an imagination can be a horrible thing to have in most traumatic situations. We are part of the scene yet unable to do anything physically to change anything. All we have are our words and our imaginations. On the other hand, when we are not dealing with direct trauma, we are listening to people tell us how they were victimized. It’s truly the best of both worlds when you’re an emergency communications operator.