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911 Operators Vulnerable to PTSD Symptoms

911 Operators Vulnerable to PTSD Symptoms911 dispatchers deal with traumatic scenarios every day, but from a distance — and it turns out that combination can make them vulnerable to symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

New research, published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress, found that dispatchers who answer 911 and 999 emergency calls suffer emotional distress which can lead to PTSD symptoms.

“Post-traumatic psychological disorders are usually associated with front line emergency workers, such as police officers, fire fighters or combat veterans,” said research leader Dr. Michelle Lilly, a psychologist at Northern Illinois University. “Usually research considers links between disorders and how much emotional distress is experienced on the scene of a traumatic event. However, this is the first study on emergency dispatchers, who experience the trauma indirectly.”

Investigators analyzed the responses of 171 currently serving emergency dispatchers from 24 U.S. states. The majority of the sample was female and Caucasian, with an average age of 38 and over 11 years of service.

Researchers asked the dispatchers about the types of potentially traumatic calls they handle and the amount of emotional distress they experienced. They were also asked to rank the types of calls which caused the most distress and to remember the worst call they had dealt with during their career.

Participants reported experiencing fear, helplessness or horror in reaction to nearly one-third of the different types of potentially traumatic calls.

Over 16 percent of the dispatchers said the worst calls were associated with the unexpected injury or death of a child; nearly 13 percent of study participants said suicidal callers were next on the list of causing emotional distress; followed by shootings involving officers, and calls involving the unexpected death of an adult — with both of these scenarios reported by nearly 10 percent of the dispatchers.

A further 3.5 percent of the sample reported symptoms severe enough to qualify for a diagnosis of PTSD.

Investigators say these results are a valuable contribution to the ongoing debate on defining a traumatic event. Currently, the definition of a traumatic event is under review with official guidelines on the designation set to be published in 2013.

Researchers believe these findings support a broad definition as it shows dispatchers experience significant levels of emotional distress at work even though they are not physically present during a traumatic event, or even know the victim of a trauma. High levels of responsibility and little ability to actually influence the outcome can add up to extremely high stress.

“Our research is the first to reveal the extent of emotional distress experienced by emergency dispatchers while on duty,” concluded researcher Heather Pierce, herself a former 911 dispatcher.

“The results show the need to provide these workers with prevention and intervention support as is currently provided for their front-line colleagues. This includes briefings and training in ways to handle emotional distress.”

Source: Wiley-Blackwell

911 Operators Vulnerable to PTSD Symptoms

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). 911 Operators Vulnerable to PTSD Symptoms. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 29, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 30 Mar 2012)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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