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For Emergency Dispatchers, The Mental Toll Of A High-Stress Job

Erik Neumann / KUER
Miles Smith at the Salt Lake Unified Police Department dispatch center.

When police get called for a domestic disturbance or a shooting, we often think of the officers who put themselves in dangerous situations. But dispatchers at the Salt Lake Unified Police Department are another group of emergency responders who deal with their own type of stress and trauma

Miles Smith has fielded lots of calls as a dispatcher over the past three years. But there’s one that sticks with him. It was his first two weeks on the job. It was July. A woman called saying her husband, Nick, was drunk and had barricaded himself in their Millcreek apartment with a loaded shotgun and pistol.

"I’ll never forget where it’s at. I’ll never forget the address," Miles says. "He makes statements to her that if anybody tries to get inside that apartment he’s gonna kill them."

Miles sends officers to the apartment. When they get there, Nick starts threatening to kill himself.

"They ask me if I’ll call because I’m the dispatcher I have a phone plugged into my ear," he says. 

Nick answers the phone. Miles says, 'How’s it going? What can I help you with?'

"He’s like, I just want you guys to leave me alone. Don’t come near me," he says. "I’m like, nobody’s in trouble. You’re not going to go to jail. You’re not going to get a ticket. Nothing’s going to happen. They just want you to put the guns down and come talk to them to make so they can make sure you’re okay. He’s like, 'I’m not gonna put my guns down.'" 

For a few minutes, Miles tries to convince him to come out and talk to officers but he says he won't leave his apartment. Then, Nick hangs up. Miles tries to call back, but there’s no answer. At this point more officers have shown up. Nick is threatening to come out on the porch and start shooting.

"So he walks out with a shotgun and he waves it," Miles recalls. 

I was convinced I was fine for about 20, 30 minutes after that, and then I started to come down from the adrenaline... I'm like, I'm fine. And she's like, 'no, you're not.'

In high-stress situations, people get what’s called auditory exclusion – everything becomes silent. But in that moment for Miles Smith, everything was amplified.

"To me it sounded like they were screaming shots fired," he says. 

Officers reported hearing a gun go off and they shot and killed Nick. It wasn’t until later that Miles learned the man was a veteran suffering from PTSD. Miles heard the whole thing play out over the radio.

"I was convinced I was fine for about 20, 30 minutes after that, and then I started to come down from the adrenaline," Miles says. "I tried to hold it together and then another dispatcher, she asked me, are you okay? I’m like, I’m fine. And she’s like, 'no you’re not.'" 

"I pull him outside. The second we get outside it’s the tears and it’s the shaking," says Shelly DeJong, Miles' supervisor. 

"I’m like, ‘ok, just sit down. Just concentrate on your breathing. Get that under control, but don’t stop crying. Just let it out,'" she says. 

It’s been three years since that event and Miles says he loves his job. He loves the adrenaline and the excitement; the chance to help people and the idea of catching the bad guy. But there’s a mental toll.

"The one that stands out is when I was newer and I picked up the phone to a caller who said, I just killed a woman and dropped her in a well," says Deborah Penrod. She has been a dispatcher in the same department for 22 years.  

Credit Erik Neumann
Deborah Penrod at the Salt Lake Unified Police Department dispatch center.

"I thought, this isn’t real. Well he did. And that bothered me. Because it was just so, it was like watching a movie, like so unreal," Penrod says.   

Dispatchers have a stressful job. They have to stay calm in frantic situations, listen to violent events and cope with their own spikes of adrenaline. But, Penrod says, that stress often goes unrecognized.

"We’re considered clerical secretaries. I’m not a secretary."

Craig Bryan is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Utah. His research focuses on PTSD, suicide and military mental health. Bryan hasn’t specifically worked with emergency dispatchers but says the type of trauma they’re exposed to and the response is reminiscent of a concept in psychology called “moral injury.”

"The idea behind moral injury is that individuals can experience a trauma reaction when they witness, they are involved in situations that violate their sense of right versus wrong," Bryan says. "So maybe it’s not necessarily a life-threatening situation to them but there’s something that disturbs them or causes inner conflict." 

For example, a soldier who might think, ‘I should have saved someone’s life but couldn’t get there’ or ‘I made a bad call and somebody else got hurt.’

"It would make sense for a lot of dispatch people to really kind of assume ‘I have a lot of control and influence over the situation and so I play a big part in whether another person lives or dies,'" Bryan says. 

That lines up with Miles Smith’s experience.

"I was convinced that I was supposed to stop it. So that wore on me. After that I never really slept good again. I recently went and saw a doctor and got sleeping medication prescribed to me because I was pulling three, four hours a night," Smith says. 

There’s lots of research out there with police, but when it comes to dispatch and mental health, there’s hardly any.

At the Salt Lake Unified Police dispatch center they have therapists on-call in case of dramatic events. But, employees say more often they just rely on each other to process things.

After 22 years on the job, Deborah Penrod says she’s learned to create a separation between her work and her personal life.

"I learned a long time ago that when I come through that door I’m not the same person. When that door closes and I leave, it stays here," she says. 

Craig Bryan with the University of Utah says the same traumatic event can affect different people differently. For some, compound stress can lead to depression, substance use and an increased likelihood of PTSD. Others aren’t bothered as much. He says one of the keys is a strong network of people who understand, listen and are supportive.  

Miles Smith says more acknowledgement that dispatchers are affected by stress is important too.

"More discussion and more openness about that it’s okay for you to be stressed and to talk about it and not feel judged because you just take phone calls and talk on a radio would really benefit a lot of people," Smith says. 

For dispatchers like him, keeping that discussion going is what will help maintain his mental health in a stressful job.

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