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Dispatchers can experience PTSD just as much as other first responders

November 27, 2018

NAMPA — A late night 911 call on April 28, 2017, still makes Nampa Police dispatcher Becky Justus cry.

A woman called to report that her husband, whom she had separated from and claimed was abusing her, was outside and trying to get into the house. Everything seemed calm at first. The caller whispered. She told her children to be quiet. As the call progressed, she learned he had a gun. She answered Justus’s questions.

“What kind of gun? Is he right- or left-handed? Does he keep the gun in his back or on his side?”

But then chaos ensued. The man broke into the front door of the house. The woman’s whispers turned into screams for help and terror. A man was yelling, the caller was yelling. Justus, who listened helplessly on the phone, believed the man, later identified as Phillip Cabrera, was killing them. Cabrera fired shots at a responding officer. He was convicted of killing a 34-year-old man at the scene.

Listening to the call replay, Justus did not know what she could have done differently.

“I didn’t do anything wrong, but I didn’t feel like I did enough,” Justus said with tears in her eyes.

For weeks, Justus found herself unable to breathe when she thought about the call. Physically and emotionally she was a mess, she said. It was nearly seven weeks until Justus reached out to a counselor because she couldn’t shake the call.

She considers her physical and emotional reactions to the shooting to be post traumatic stress disorder.

She is not alone in her response.

A 2012 study done by Northern Illinois University looked at how dispatchers responded to duty-related trauma and found that a direct exposure to trauma is not necessary to increase the risk for PTSD. The study found many dispatchers who responded to a traumatic call felt fear, hopelessness or horror. It also found that 18 to 24 percent of dispatchers would report enough symptoms of PTSD to receive a diagnosis.

Legislation created by state Rep. Mat Erpelding, D-Boise, is set to be introduced next year, which would make a post-traumatic stress injury a “compensable injury or occupational disease” if a first responder is diagnosed as a result of their work. Currently, workers’ compensation for PTSD or another psychological injury only kicks in when accompanied by a physical injury. The legislation would include police, firefighters, paramedics and dispatchers.

This comes as a pleasant surprise to Justus and Carmen Boeger, dispatch manager at the department, who said dispatchers are often forgotten. Though the Nampa Police Department is fully supportive of dispatchers and their role as first responders, in general, some people assume dispatchers are just “secretaries,” Justus said.

Dispatch is classified federally as a clerical occupation instead of a protective occupation like a police officer, firefighter, crossing guard or TSA screener. Clerical work is typically day-to-day tasks including answering phones and doing paperwork. Other clerical jobs include secretaries and clerks.

In 2017, the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials called for the Office of Management and Budget to change dispatchers’ occupation classification to a protective occupation. The office rejected it stating, “the work performed is that of a dispatcher, not a first responder.” Most dispatchers, the office claimed, do not perform actual care, talk someone through a procedure or provide advice, like those in a protective occupation do.

But listening to a number of previous 911 calls made to Nampa dispatch reveals more than just the paperwork dispatchers complete.

In one call, a dispatcher listened to an officer involved in a police pursuit, which eventually became a foot chase. For a moment, there was nothing but silence on the responding officer’s end.

“The silence is what gives our dispatchers PTSD,” Boeger said.

Another dispatcher received a call of a suicide attempt. The dispatcher attempted to calm the distressed caller repeatedly asking her to take deep breaths so the dispatcher could understand the caller through sobs. It took minutes before the caller could even provide the dispatcher with information about the area where the two were located.

In another call, a woman could not even relay information to the dispatcher because she was crying so hard. Then, the caller hung up.

Some calls require dispatchers to teach family members or good Samaritans how to do CPR over the phone. Justus even helped in the delivery of a baby once.

And in the mix of responding to critical calls, dispatchers still have to answer 911 calls asking about parking, if police can pick their child up from school or to get their neighbor’s dog to stop barking.

“I literally would challenge anyone to say we don’t deserve that,” Justus said about being called first responders.

Working beyond PTSD

Justus, who has been a dispatcher for nine years, including five with Nampa Police, said the Cabrera call was one of two calls that really affected her. She went home and sobbed, and she didn’t go to work the next day. She was able to talk with her best friend and fellow dispatcher about the call outside of work, which helped.

“You can’t turn trauma off in your head,” she said. “You have to talk and work it out.”

Being able to talk to other dispatchers and police initially after the shooting helped Justus. Understanding they’ve experienced the same feelings was comforting.

Now, she is more aware of other dispatchers who take on critical calls. She always checks in with them and lets them know she is there to listen if they need her.

When a critical incident occurs in a department, there are debriefings where anyone who was on the call can hear about the timeline and what happened. But what’s most helpful, Justus thinks, is the Nampa Police and Nampa Fire meetings after critical incidents where everyone involved in the response sits in a circle and answers the same set of questions about an incident and how it affected them. She thinks it allows police and dispatchers to better understand one another.

For example, following the Cabrera call, Justus could not just go home once the call was over. Instead, she continued to take calls. She said officers who responded to the shooting that day had no idea.

Nampa Police dispatchers can take advantage of counseling, employee assistance programs or peer groups just like police officers, Boeger said.

As for moving on from critical calls, “we will never get rid of this, but as long as it doesn’t give me anxiety when another call comes,” Justus knows she can continue doing her job. Although some calls are especially difficult, she tries to focus on taking the great — like helping deliver a baby over the phone — and making it amazing.

Justus hopes to help dispatchers realize experiencing PTSD is nothing to be ashamed of, and she hopes to make dispatchers more aware of PTSD.

“I think I’m strong enough to do the job, but there shouldn’t be that stigma about asking for help,” she said.

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