How 911 Dispatchers Can Lessen Victim Trauma

Written by KOVA Corp

It’s a fact that’s often overlooked, but it’s true nonetheless. A victim’s very first point of contact in an emergency is not the policeman, not the EMT in the ambulance, and not the firefighter. The first person they tell about their emergency, and the first person they receive help from is the 911 dispatcher.

Any emergency is bound to leave the victim traumatized in some way. From feelings of helplessness or depression, to rage and even post-traumatic stress disorder, a certain level of emotional turmoil is simply to be expected after experiencing a crime, accident, or medical emergency.

However, it’s now been shown that the way the dispatcher at the public safety answering point handles the call can actually have an effect on the severity of the trauma sustained by a victim long-term. Because of these findings, it’s important to train 911 dispatchers to answer calls with that responsibility in mind.

An emergency communications agent’s handling of a call sets the stage for the victim’s experience with every emergency responder he or she will encounter that day. If the dispatcher is hurried or rude, it can make the victim hostile towards or wary of all other public safety officials they need to interact with during their emergency. With that lack of trust compounding the natural stress of the situation, as well as the irritation at not being treated with understanding, the traumatic effects on the victim can actually be made significantly worse in both the short and the long term.

If, on the other hand, the dispatcher demonstrates empathy during the call, it can go a long way towards diffusing the stress of the situation. When emergency responders arrive on-scene, the victim will feel more positively towards them, and the overall trauma of the event is reduced. After an emergency, people who have called 911 often talk about their experience with the dispatcher, either expressing gratitude for their caring help, or outrage at their uncaring attitude. Those whose interactions were positive are more likely to feel less traumatized by the entire incident.

What steps can your PSAP dispatchers take to ensure that the calls they handle are positive experiences for the victims? Here are a few effective tips for dispatchers to keep in mind:

1. Remember that every emergency is traumatic to the victim

For 911 dispatchers, emergency calls are routine – they hear from people experiencing the same kinds of emergencies every day. But for the person calling in, this is most likely the worst day of their life, and something they’ve never gone through before. Keeping that in mind can help agents deal appropriately with each new caller.

Since every call is a new, traumatic situation for the victim, it's best to teach your dispatchers to be understanding and remain calm during the call. This will help their overall feeling and experience of the emergency to not be as negative in their mind, since they had a helpful dispatcher get them what they needed.

2. Show as much empathy as possible

In an emergency, there may not be time to convey empathy with words, but dispatchers can still show they care through the tone of their voice, and the way they handle the call. Every little touch of empathy and compassion that can be added to an interaction will help diffuse the stress.

3. Take care of your own mental health, as well

If agents are stressed themselves, they will be less able to demonstrate compassion towards their callers. Encourage your dispatchers to take measures to reduce the stress in their own lives. When it comes to emergency situation handling, be sure to train your dispatchers with this thought in mind. They are there to help the person/victim on the other line, and in doing so your dispatchers must remain calm and not be stressed out.

By keeping these three tips in mind, your PSAP dispatchers can help to lessen the traumatic impact of each victim’s emergency. And when those victims tell others about their experience, they’ll be the ones gushing about their gratitude towards the kind, caring 911 agents who helped them through it.

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