Using EMDR Therapy To Help 911 Dispatchers Cope With Trauma

Written by KOVA Corp

During certain phases of sleep, our eyes move back and forth rapidly as we process the day’s events in our dreams. Called REM, or Rapid Eye Movement, this phenomenon is connected to the way in which our brains deal with whatever we’ve encountered whether good, bad, or indifferent.

The Birth of EMDR

In 1987, a psychologist named Dr. Francine Shapiro discovered that those same eye movements, when done while awake, can actually lessen the intensity of negative thoughts and feelings. And from this new insight, a new way of treating people afflicted with post-traumatic stress disorder was born.

The therapy developed is called EMDR, or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. In a series of meetings with a therapist, patients are guided through an 8-step process until the event that caused their PTSD no longer has a grip on them.

Treating 911 Dispatchers with PTSD

For 911 dispatchers who are dealing with PTSD due to a particularly traumatic call, EMDR therapy can serve as an effective way to work through the negative emotions and thoughts so that they no longer affect them so strongly.

EMDR is a flexible therapy, allowing 911 dispatchers to say as much or as little about their traumatic experience as they feel comfortable sharing. The main focus is not on “talking it out” but rather on making a conscious effort to reshape thoughts and emotions while performing a series of eye movements.

Therapists guide PSAP dispatchers through the following eight steps:

History and Treatment Planning

In the first sessions with the therapist, the dispatcher discusses as much or as little as she feels comfortable relating. It could be a detailed account of what happened or something as simple and general as, “I had to take a really traumatic call.” Then the therapist and the dispatcher will discuss the detrimental effects that trauma has had and what their goals for treatment will be.


During this phase, the therapist explains to the PSAP dispatcher what to expect, and teaches her some techniques for calming herself in moments of stress. These techniques will vary, as the therapist wants to ensure that the dispatcher has several options when feeling emotional distress. Techniques include using imagery or stress reduction tactics. The goal is to help reduce the feeling of distress when it arises. It also helps create a sense of trust between the dispatcher and therapist. This step may take several sessions.


Next, the dispatcher is told to choose an image that represents the traumatic event and to identify the negative thought that accompanies it in her mind, such as “I am helpless” or “I am in danger.” She should also identify the physical effects caused by remembering the event. Then, the therapist helps her to choose a positive thought to replace the negative one with, such as “I am in control” or “I am safe.”


Now the therapist leads the dispatcher through a series of eye movements while prompting her to think of the traumatic event, allowing new and different associations to form with it, as she is told to change focus at various intervals. This step also focuses on resolving similar events that can cause emotional distress or are closely related to the target situation. By helping to resolve distress over similar situations, the dispatcher can surpass their original goal (handling their PSTD and associated traumatic event) and be able to better handle a similar situation in the future.


During this phase, the PSAP dispatcher concentrates on replacing the negative thought with the chosen positive one. The goal is to internally replace the negative thought for a positive one and believe it is true. It can also identify steps needed to take in order to truly believe in the positive thought. If the thought is about being unsafe and the positive thought is that one is safe, an individual may have to take self-defense courses to truly believe the positive thought.

Body Scan

At this stage, the dispatcher thinks of the traumatic event and then notices what her physical reactions are, such as a stomachache or shaky hands. The goal is that at the end of treatment, the dispatcher will be able to remember the incident with no physical reaction at all. The entire treatment session cannot be considered concluded if there are still physical reactions when recalling a traumatic event.


At the end of every session, the therapist ensures that the PSAP dispatcher is feeling calm again, by performing a relaxation exercise. The dispatcher should leave the session feeling better than they did at the start of it. They also must feel as in control outside of the therapist’s office as they did when they were in the office. The dispatcher needs to feel that they can handle the situation regardless of where they are.


Finally, the therapist reevaluates the dispatcher to ensure that the changes are truly long-term. At the start of each session the therapist will check to see that positive changes made during the previous session have been maintained. At this point additional targets will be identified and new treatment will be discussed.

EMDR therapy has been proven to help people deal with many different kinds of trauma. If any 911 dispatchers at your public safety answering point are in need of this sort of treatment, you can find more information here.

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