9-1-1 Telecommunications: It’s more than just taking a stressful call

October 7, 2022

by Anna Fitch Courie - Director, Responder Wellness FirstNet® Program at AT&T

Before 9-1-1, when community members had an emergency, they would have to call their local operator, sheriff, police, hospital or fire department for help – and hope they had the correct number from the phone book. Those groups then bore the responsibility of dispatching the appropriate entity.

As emergencies became more complex, municipalities grew and resources expanded, the need for a professional who could take the call, triage the issue, and deploy the right assets quickly became evident.  With this, the profession of 9-1-1 telecommunications was born.

In 1967, the FCC worked with AT&T to determine if a single code could route emergency calls quickly and easily to a Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP). This would streamline emergency response and improve the efficiency of life saving measures.  In 1968, with the backing of the FCC, AT&T announced the implementation of 9-1-1 as the emergency activation code nationwide.

Today, with over 240 million calls to 9-1-1 in the U.S., most people assume 9-1-1 professionals are answering only emergency calls. But that’s far from reality. 

“Only about 40% of calls are true life-threatening emergencies”, says Mark Spross, director, METCOM 911 in Oregon. The remaining 60% of calls that communities route through PSAPs are for information, connecting to services and mental health triage, among others.

There are just over 95,000 positions nationwide  handling these calls. One of the challenges is that vacancies in PSAPs can be up to 75%, according to April Heinze, 9-1-1 and PSAP Operations Director for the National Emergency Number Association (NENA). This growing staffing shortage is reaching a critical level and has ramifications on the personal, professional, and organizational level for community emergency response capabilities.

When PSAPs are understaffed, several things happen, says Chris Fischer, Interim Deputy Director, Seattle 9-1-1 Center. “One, there is a delay in answering the incoming calls because there are not enough people to handle the volume of calls coming in,” she says. “Two, there is a greater burden on the individuals taking the calls to provide the appropriate resources. And three, some community services that governing agencies expect PSAPs to offer the callers are put on pause to prioritize emergency call taking.”

“And it’s not just the burden of increased volume on individuals, it’s the stress of those calls,” explains Fischer. “It used to be that a fatal shooting was a rare bad call night…Now, fatal shootings are happening multiple times in a shift, and a 9-1-1 call taker listens to everything going on at the other end of the line.”

Emergency telecommunications professionals may not be able to touch, smell or see what’s happening at the other end of the line. But as the first, first responders on the scene, they hear things that stay with them for years to come.

The increasing violence of emergency calls and the burden of listening to what is occurring on the other end of the call, experiencing the trauma through the senses (without being the actual victim) is considered vicarious trauma.  Vicarious trauma is an occupational hazard for some professions. It’s often seen in public safety as a risk factor for post-traumatic stress, depression, and anxiety. April Heinze tells us that it’s not only traumatizing to hear these increasingly violent calls, but frustrating for 9-1-1 call takers to not get resolution. These individuals rarely know if their actions made a difference in someone’s life.

And while they do make a big difference, sometimes those efforts come with personal sacrifice.

Margie Moulin, retired Director, Emergency Communications of Southern Oregon tells us there has been a huge generational shift.

“Times are different. We are balancing a shift in emergency response,” she says. “We have a generation that’s been brought up understanding that self-care is a part of a healthy work-life balance, and that is important.  At the same time, 9-1-1 is a high stress profession requiring long hours, overtime and a commitment to serving our communities through their most difficult times.  It’s not an easy job and finding the balance between taking care of those taking the call and meeting the expectations of those making the calls is often difficult.”

Moulin, Heinze, Spross, and Fischer all agree that the current state of 9-1-1 professional telecommunicators is vastly different than the profession in which they started. But they also agree that professional organizations such as the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials (APCO) and the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) are committed to supporting these professionals who are the first to arrive on scene.

Both organizations have established wellness committees to address the most pressing wellness problems facing dispatch and strike the balance between effective operations and the support of self-care. Both organizations have joined the FirstNet Health and Wellness Coalition to represent the interests of their constituents.  They’ve also learned that sharing best practices and lessons learned is a means to learn from the activities of others and different actions that can make a difference in the wellness of first responders.

Moulin notes that APCO has established a wellness committee to identify those best practices and standards for all call centers. She believes any small change that incorporates wellness into an organization is a good one. That can mean a break room with a massage chair, meditation space or other wellness activities. Spross agrees. He suggests healthier food options for telecommunicators on the go. His dream is that communities support telecommunicators with the same time as fire fighters or police officers during their workday to address physical fitness. And Heinze wants to see 9-1-1 call takers embrace the purpose and passion of their profession.

“This is an old and honored profession,” Heinze says. “When people realize the difference they make on the worst day of someone’s life, that’s wellness.  That’s purpose, pride and profession.”

Fischer knows the wellness future of 9-1-1 telecommunicators rests with the people. After serving as past President of APCO, she came out of retirement to lead NENA’s Wellness Committee and help the City of Seattle set up its new Community Safety/Communication Center.

“My commitment is to my people,” Fischer says. “As a leader, I need to help people in the position of making decisions to make the right decision to care for these professionals. And help them not just in teaching them how to use the technology or triage calls, but in how they take care of themselves. It’s just as important to invest in the people who answer the call versus the technical systems they use.”

To learn more about wellness efforts, visit NENA, APCO and FirstNet.com.

Margie Moulin began her career as a 9-1-1 Telecommunicator at a center in Southern Oregon. Through the next 15 years, she worked as a telecommunicator, communications training officer, dispatch supervisor, operations manager and assistant director. She’s spent the last 16 years as the director of the Emergency Communications Center in Southern Oregon (ECSO9-1-1). Margie began her membership with APCO in 1994 and has served at both the chapter and national levels. She served as the president of the Oregon Chapter in 2006, and as the APCO International president (2020-2021).

April Heinze ENP, CMCP is the 9-1-1 and PSAP Operations Director for NENA: The 9-1-1 Association. She supports the NENA development group with operational standards and best practices. She educates, advises, and advocates for 9-1-1 and PSAP operational issues on behalf of NENA with various industry associations and governmental entities. Before joining NENA, April spent 24 years in a PSAP in Michigan. She began as a public safety telecommunicator and worked her way up to director. She was then recruited by an NG9-1-1 provider and spent nearly three years as a PSAP liaison and industry advocate.

Mark Spross has over 31 years of public safety service starting as a Telecommunicator for Douglas County, Oregon in 1991.  Since then, Mark has worked in two PSAP’s as telecommunicator and continued in public safety as a deputy sheriff, emergency manager, 9-1-1 operations supervisor, technical manager, operations manager and currently serves as an executive director for an ECC in Marion County, Oregon.  Mark has been a member of APCO and NENA and was elected as the vice president of the Oregon Chapter in 2011 going on to serve as the president in 2012 and 2013.  He continues to be active with the chapter by serving on the legislative committee and serves as the Oregon Executive Council Representative with APCO.

Chris Fischer began her career as a 9-1-1 telecommunicator for the Renton Police Department and then moved to Valley Communications Center as a part of a regional consolidation effort in South King County, WA. She served as telecommunicator, supervisor, deputy director and was the executive director for 20 years. She served APCO as chair of the Com Center Standards Committee and was elected to the Board of Officers of APCO and served as president in 2009-2010. She currently co-chairs the NENA Wellness Committee and is serving as the interim deputy director of CSCC/City of Seattle 9-1-1.

Dr. Anna Fitch Courie, director of Responder Wellness, FirstNet Program at AT&T is a nurse, Army wife, university faculty, and author.  Dr. Courie has worked for over 25 years in the health care profession including bone marrow transplant, intensive care, U.S. Army Public Health, and Health Promotion practice.  Dr. Courie holds a Bachelor’s in Nursing from Clemson University; a Master’s in Nursing Education from the University of Wyoming; and a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree from Ohio State University.  Dr. Courie’s area of expertise is integration of public health strategy across disparate organizations to achieve health improvement goals.