Matthew Russell (left), an emergency telecommunicator, enters information into the dispatch system while his trainee Brian Ehemann (right) responds to a 911 call. The Combined Communications Center takes about half a million calls per year, said Michelle Klement, the bureau chief. Photo courtesy of Anthony Russell
Matthew Russell is followed by nightmares that are not confined to sleep. They shape shift, a collection of other people’s emergencies.
He cannot see them, but he hears them. They are the voice of a mother acknowledging the death of her son and an elderly man taking his last breath. They mirror the sound of shattering glass and sirens.
Almost every day for the past three years, Russell, 29, has faced these nightmares head-on. As an emergency telecommunicator stationed at the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office, he has answered every type of call imaginable. It’s the calls that don’t end well that haunt him.
“You wonder what you could have done differently,” he said. “You wonder what you should have done differently.”
But the nightmares don’t just come in the form of voices anymore. They can now appear as text messages. Residents of Gainesville have been able to text the Combined Communications Center with their emergencies since November.
The center is currently understaffed, but the bigger challenge has been supporting the emotional and psychological needs of the employees it already has, according to Michelle Klement, bureau chief of the CCC.
Emergency telecommunicators are the first contact for victims. They must commit to working 12-hour shifts, but it is not uncommon for employees to find themselves working up to 16 hours a day.
Along with long hours, they work weekends and holidays, and often go long periods of time without seeing their families. Then there are the challenges that come with the paycheck.
The center has taken a hit at the county commission level, according to Klement.
“Our budget has decreased,” she said. “It’s been stated that we are one of the most underpaid jobs that are out there in dealing with the stress that we deal with.”
Employees are not here to be rich, though, she said.
“It takes a special type of person to do what we do,” Klement said. “In this job, they are intrinsically motivated to help people.”
But emergency telecommunicators sometimes need help themselves.
Susie Westfall, a communications training commander, is one of only three employees qualified to provide Critical Incident Stress Debriefing.
The main objective of CISD practitioners is to listen without judgment and help employees develop appropriate coping mechanisms.
“As a person who is a dispatcher, I have been there,” she said. “I know what it feels like to take a call and feel absolutely helpless, and not be able to physically do anything except sit there and listen.”
But Westfall does not feel three practitioners are enough to help the entire center.
She said she would like at least six more people trained so at least 10 percent of the staff is qualified.
In the meantime, the center participates in clinics where employees can have their blood pressure taken, learn about diabetes and receive facts about shift workers and the necessity of getting a proper night’s rest.
It is also looking into a psychotherapy treatment called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, which Westfall said is currently being utilized by the military for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Something emergency telecommunicators are also at risk for.
Matthew Russell, a 29-year-old emergency telecommunicator, responds to a 911 call by sending obtained information to dispatch. “It’s really powerful knowing that someone’s life is in your hands,” he said. “Just your voice can make a difference whether they make it or not.” Heather Reinblatt/ WUFT News
Emergency telecommunicators do not have to have direct, physical exposure to trauma to be at risk for PTSD, according to a 2012 study published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress.
The study found that they experience high levels of peritraumatic distress, strong emotions felt during a traumatic event. This can pose a significant risk to the general population in an emergency response.
To mitigate some of the stress, Westfall focuses on making sure employees have a life outside of work, one where they can relax and see a more positive side of humanity.
“You have to remain connected,” she said. “You have to have family, friends, church and hobbies. Whatever it is, that’s what helps employees the most.”
Touch of Humanity
The nightmares will always be there, waiting on the other end of the line.
But there are things that make it easier. There are things that allow Matthew Russell to reconnect with the outside world.
He has his wife’s unconditional support and his five-month-old daughter’s laughter. He looks forward to his morning commute and his favorite song, “Tessa” by Steve Jablonsky.
And every night before bed, he practices heart-focused breathing, which drops his heart rate and reduces the amount of adrenaline in his body.
He also has his colleagues. Although they may work different shifts, they are committed to making time for each other outside of work. In fact, a kayak trip down the Steinhatchee River is in the works.
They may never truly adjust to their job and be able to fully separate themselves from the trauma, but Russell said they try. They try because they want nothing but the best for the people on the other end of the line.
“Sometimes the best thing you can do is keep picking up the phone,” Russell said.