The thin yellow line flag has been flying on social media all week as we conclude National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week.
 - Image courtesy of Oak Harbor PD / Facebook.

The thin yellow line flag has been flying on social media all week as we conclude National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week.

Image courtesy of Oak Harbor PD / Facebook.

During the second full week of April, public safety agencies celebrate a group of individuals without whom public safety agencies would fail to properly function—dispatchers and call takers.

We're all familiar with the ceremonial American flag with the thin blue line that represents police. We're all aware of the version of the flag with a red line that represents fire service. But a black and white flag adorned with a single yellow line down the center is not as well known. That flag has been flying on social media all week as we conclude National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week.

My social media feeds have been alight with messages of thanks and admiration for this all-too-often unsung group of dedicated professionals.

The Emeryville (CA) Police Department posted on Facebook, "The voice on the phone during your emergency is a 911 dispatcher. Once that phone hangs up they rarely hear a thank you. For this EPD is greatly appreciative of our dispatchers and all dispatchers around the country."

The Nevada Highway Patrol posted, "This week is a special time when we like to recognize and thank all of our dispatchers. It’s National Public Safety Telecommunications Week. Our dispatchers deal with the same stress and adrenaline-filled situations that our troopers have to deal with on a daily basis. They are the first to answer the call of duty, they truly are the unsung heroes of Law Enforcement. Thank You for all you do for us."

The Sebastopol (CA) Police Department posted, "This week is Dispatcher Appreciation Week! Often the first first responders, our dispatchers are those helpful voices you hear on the phone when you call 911 for an emergency or the non-emergency line to get information about a dog license or ask to speak with an officer. At Sebastopol PD our dispatchers pull triple duty, also working our front counter and handling our department records. Dispatchers are an essential component of our law enforcement team."

The Elk Grove (CA) Police Department posted, "It's National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week. Our dispatchers do a great job, often in very difficult circumstances, to deliver public safety resources to people in need of help. They are skilled, compassionate, professionals and we are lucky to have them!"

The Oak Harbor (OH) Police Department posted, "We'd like to send our sincerest gratitude out to our dispatchers at the Oak Harbor Police Department for National Telecommunications Week. Our dispatchers go above and beyond every day to ensure the safety of our officers and community….There are no words to express how grateful we are for the men and women who have our backs every day, that often go unnoticed, and unappreciated."

Dozens of similar messages were shared throughout the week.

According to APCO International—the trade association of public safety communications professionals—the annual celebration began with a simple gesture by the Contra Costa County Sheriff Richard Rainey in 1981.

Sheriff Rainey had inadvertently forced his dispatch unit into a difficult situation when he took his entire admin staff to lunch, forcing the call takers to answer administrative calls. He entered the call center later that day with a giant cake and a sincere apology, saying, "Happy Dispatcher Week."

The agency quietly continued the tradition. Then in 1994, President Bill Clinton signed a law that made this local celebration into a national event, saying, "This week is a time for a grateful nation to show its appreciation and to recognize that our health, safety, and well-being are often dependent on the commitment and steadfast devotion of public safety telecommunicators."

I contend that dispatchers deserve appreciation and admiration for all 52 weeks of the year, and that there shouldn't be a law telling us to thank these unsung heroes of public safety.

I've spent my fair share of time at the annual conference put on by APCO and have had the good fortune to befriend a good many of the attendees I've met there. They're truly special folks.

As we close out this week, I want to say something that goes beyond simple appreciation for this group of people.

I contend that dispatchers and call takers need to have more—and better—support to address some of the negative consequences they suffer from their career of choice.

Stress, PTSD, and Peer Support

It's an undeniable fact that working in the Emergency Call/Dispatch Center is one of the more stressful jobs around. Call takers are exposed to hideous things, with people calling in to describe events which leave lasting impressions in a call-taker's memory.

They give this information to dispatch, which then transmits it out to the responding officers. The call taker may remain on the line all the way through the arrival of the officers and hear what transpires, but they may be forced to take another call, potentially never learning whether the individual(s) in distress are okay.

Did the baby die? Was the motorist extracted from the burning vehicle? Was the woman raped?

All too often these questions go unanswered.

This leaves a scar.

Such critical incident stress may not be permanent, but it is terribly painful.

Then they do it all over again, taking the next call, and then the next, and then the next. All night long.

They go home, get some rest, and return the next day to do it all over again.

For years, the cycle repeats.

This leaves a scar.

Such cumulative stress can last literally a lifetime if it's not addressed and treated.

These individuals enter the profession because they want to help people—they are inherently caring and compassionate people. They tend to have tremendous empathy for the people on the other end of the line. I've had call takers tell me things like, "I'll never forget that call" and "You can't erase those sounds you hear—the pain on the other end of the line."

According to a 2017 study published by the U.S. National Library of Medicine, "Although they are removed from the scene of the incident, EDC operatives work in an environment characterized by some of the same difficulties encountered by front-line responders (e.g., paramedics, police officers or firefighters). For example, operatives face the demands of rapid risk assessment, time-limited decision-making, and coping with unexpected developments, regardless of which emergency service they are supporting."

However, I've heard time and again—during my attendance at APCO and in subsequent conversations—that agency management does little to help these individuals alleviate the accumulated stress of working in the call center.

There are some agencies with peer support programs specifically for the people in the call center, but they are in the minority—most do not. And dispatchers who don't have a dedicated peer support unit tend to avoid the peer support offerings for their counterparts who serve in the field.

This needs to change. Dispatchers and call takers need more help, and it's up to command staff to take this challenge on with the same vigor they would for police officers, paramedics, and firefighters suffering from PTSD or job-related stress.

As this week of appreciation comes to an end, I hope that you take a moment to say thank you to your dispatchers and call takers and say thank you.

I hope you then send an email—or pay a visit with your command staff—and ask what they are doing to help these proud professionals.

Related Article: 10 Things Dispatchers Want You to Know

Author

Doug Wyllie
Doug Wyllie

Web Editor

Doug Wyllie has authored more than 1,000 articles and tactical tips aimed at ensuring that police officers are safer and more successful on the streets. Doug is a Western Publishing Association “Maggie Award” winner for Best Regularly Featured Digital Edition Column. He is a member of International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA), an Associate Member of the California Peace Officers’ Association (CPOA), and a member of the Public Safety Writers Association (PSWA).

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Doug Wyllie has authored more than 1,000 articles and tactical tips aimed at ensuring that police officers are safer and more successful on the streets. Doug is a Western Publishing Association “Maggie Award” winner for Best Regularly Featured Digital Edition Column. He is a member of International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA), an Associate Member of the California Peace Officers’ Association (CPOA), and a member of the Public Safety Writers Association (PSWA).

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