OKLAHOMA CITY — The calls started coming into the 911 emergency dispatch center shortly after 1 a.m. April 6, as two men drove through Tulsa neighborhoods shooting pedestrians at random: people crying, questioning, worried about their own safety, giving rushed reports of fallen victims bleeding and unmoving.
Ultimately, police would arrest the men and charge them with killing three people and critically injuring two others. But the call center dispatchers at the time had no way of knowing how badly the victims were hurt or whether the shooters would end up in jail. Easter weekend began with violence and a lack of closure, Tulsa region dispatch supervisor Kimberly Faxon said.
"We get firsthand exposure when people are at their most traumatized — people screaming or gunshots in the background," she said. "But then we don't always know the rest of the story. I don't care how hardened you think you are to the job, you can't be exposed to that and not have it affect you."
Emergency dispatch managers recognize the potential harm of long-term emotional trauma and urge employees to seek counseling assistance, as has been the case with Tulsa dispatchers, Faxon said. The availability and quality of mental health care has dramatically improved in the 17 years that she's been with the call center, but it remains a challenge.
According to the American Psychological Association, post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is an anxiety problem that develops in some people after extremely traumatic events, such as combat, crime, an accident or natural disaster. People with PTSD may relive those events in the form of intrusive memories, flashbacks and nightmares. They may also avoid anything that reminds them of the trauma and have anxious feelings so intense that their lives are disrupted.
Call center operators handling 911 emergency calls can develop such symptoms even at a distance, according to a study by Northern Illinois University psychologist Michelle Lilly and former dispatcher Heather Pierce recently published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress. About one in 30 respondents reported symptoms severe enough to merit a PTSD diagnosis, they said, which suggests that the formal definition of traumatic event needs to be expanded by professionals in the field.
Regardless of whether the experience is identified as PTSD, Greg Giltner said he has seen enough examples of emotional distress to know that dispatchers need more support. Giltner, a sergeant and chaplain with the Oklahoma City Police Department, helps manage the central region 911 call center.
In both Oklahoma City and Tulsa, distressed dispatchers can immediately reach out to co-workers trained in peer support. The centers also have chaplains and psychiatrists on staff, backed up by an employee assistance program.
Giltner agreed with Faxon that employees are reluctant to seek out assistance because they see it as a weakness or social stigma. Even when such services are offered and people are prodded in that direction, some still balk. Giltner said the police department has gotten wiser over the years about how to deal with the challenge.
"You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink," he said. "Forcing employees didn't work. So what we've done is changed our training and addressed our hiring practices: When new dispatchers and police officers are hired, they're told upfront that when they're involved in a critical incident, a chaplain or peer-support volunteer will come assist you in some way."
Managers choose their words carefully, he said people dig in their heels at mandatory counseling while required debriefings are more easily accepted. Over time, with each new hire, the culture will change and people will come to accept the need for emotional support, he said.
Psychologist Mary Mihelich Ventonis said counseling is akin to brushing teeth twice a day to maintain good oral hygiene.
"It's prophylactic maintenance," she said.
Therapists need professional support as well for much the same reason, she said.
In her private practice in Tulsa, Ventonis specializes in PTSD. She has worked around the world with U.S. military families. Several commanders require that their soldiers visit therapists to help them process their experiences before redeployment, she said. Emergency dispatchers would benefit from similar programs.
"Otherwise you stand the risk of it becoming a lifelong emotional injury," Ventonis said.
Ventonis said it's important to recognize that some people are better suited for dealing with trauma, so assumptions and comparisons with other employees should be avoided. On the whole, however, it's better to be proactive and provide more assistance than not enough.
Faxon said that the days of silently toughing out emotional distress alone have passed and the workplace is better for it. She agreed that more work is necessary.
"At some level, even though they seem to handle it pretty well, I think they still are affected," she said. "I'm speaking from personal experience: When I was a very new dispatcher, we had a flood in Tulsa and I had a lady who drowned waiting for help. It affected me, and still to this day I think of that. I'll always carry regret that I wasn't able to get help to that woman in time. It stays with you."
For the Tulsa dispatchers who worked the Easter weekend shootings, the situation is a little different, Faxon said.
"There were numerous calls that were coming in at the time, which means a lot of our dispatchers were involved with the same event. And I think in the end that's made a difference because they can talk about it with each other," she said. "It helps to have someone you can talk to."