A former 911 operator who was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is hoping to help prevent other operators in Canada from going through the same experience.
Langley resident Rae-Lynne Dicks began her career as a 911 operator in 1995 and transitioned to B.C.’s biggest 911 call centre, E-Comm, in 1999.
While most of us think of police as first responders, it is actually 911 operators who usually are the first to deal with emergency situations.
Dicks experienced hundreds of in-progress emergencies, including rapes, bridge jumpers, fire deaths, home invasions and domestic assaults.
“It is the helplessness of being on the phone, help is on the way, and there is nothing more you can do but listen to a person take their last breath full of smoke, hear them scream as they fall and then hit the water, hear the gunshot from the weapon pointed at their own head, hear the daddy beating mommy as you try to calm the child hiding in the closet and mommy stops screaming because she is unconscious,” writes Dicks in her capstone major paper about PTSD among Canadian 911 operators.
She has conducted the first research in Canada on the prevalence of PTSD symptoms among Canadian 911 operators as part of her Master of Arts in criminal justice degree at University of Fraser Valley.
Dicks sent survey questions to operators at six different organizations across Canada, including police, ambulance and fire that included a PTSD check list, requested information about how they cope and education, prevention and treatment provided by their employers.
Of the 146 operators who responded, 80.14 per cent reported experiencing at least one PTSD symptom, 30.8 per cent had a total symptom severity score of equal to or greater than 28, and 8.9 percent met all the symptom criteria for diagnosis of PTSD.
More than 88 per cent said they cope by making their situation better but 43 per cent said they use alcohol or drugs to cope. A shocking 19 per cent said they have given up on the attempt to cope.
The pool of operators surveyed should be bigger, she said, but her findings indicate that more support and more research is needed.
From her findings, Dicks is now hoping to work with 911 call centres around the country to assist organizations in developing and implementing peer support programs to ensure operators are receiving the support that they need after dealing with a major crisis. She has joined a group of professionals through the Mood Disorders Society of Canada to do just that.
“In almost all emergencies, once we are done with that call, we continue taking calls. For an officer, after an emergency call they do paper work and debrief. For 911 operators, they keep working. They can’t unplug,” she said.
And in a big call centre like E-Comm, an operator can take 40 to 120 calls a shift.
“It’s the constant exposure to trauma that is the difference,” she said. “A police officer will deal with up to 12 calls per shift.”
Plus, there is no closure for a 911 operator.
“We don’t get the satisfaction of arresting the bad guy or knowing what happens to the bad guys after we take the call,” she said.
She believes there should be protocol in place that allows an operator to say, “I’m traumatized. I need a break.”
That person would then be able to go off and talk with a person trained in debriefing after trauma.
But like other first responder cultures, there is stigmatization that everyone needs to be tough, and that leads to no one speaking up. The silence has led to suicides among 911 operators, she said.
Suicides among paramedics and police officers has been on the increase in Canada and highly publicized as of late.
Operators are also not allowed to talk to anyone close to them about what they dealt with at work, for fear that someone’s privacy would be compromised.
This leaves them no one to talk with and reduces a circle of support.
“It creates a disconnect,” Dicks said.
One of the key components of being a good 911 operator is the ability to make really important decisions quickly. When you have PTSD, decision making becomes difficult, she said.
For Dicks, the accumulation of traumatic incidents over many years created a downhill spiral that led to her diagnosis in 2002.
She suffered night terrors in which her psyche replaced victims from calls she took with her family members.
Everyone’s experiences with PSTD is different. For Dicks, her diagnosis is considered chronic because it has lasted for more than one year.
Dicks thinks awareness and education amongst 911 operators and management is another key component to assisting operators see the early warning signs and seeking help to prevent it becoming full-blown PTSD.
Dicks is a volunteer at Badge of Life Canada, www.badgeoflifecanada.com. She recently spoke at the Justice Institute during the 2014 Heroes are Human tour for Tema Conter Memorial Trust.
She believes with the right education and support, PTSD can be mitigated among 911 operators.