Emergency dispatchers dealing with stress
Rachael Opiola doesn’t forget calls like these. In her first years as a Marshall County dispatcher, she answered the worst of the worst.
"If you need me, you’re going to need the coroner," Opiola says.
She says she has to laugh so she doesn’t cry. After so many chilling calls, Opiola questioned if she could continue.
"All the negativity, all the time the things you hear, the screams you hear, the calls you take," Opiola.
She says it takes a special person to deal with daily tragedy, preserve positivity, and above all stay calm in the chaos. "I’m a worrier, what could I have done, what should I have done," she says. "I’m a really bad worrier."
Coworker Katrina Ellington says she was naïve when she started dispatching 18 years ago for KSP.
She was with KSP’s Post 1 when two troopers died while on duty:Trooper Eric Chrisman in a crash and Trooper Cameron Ponder, who was shot by a man he was trying to help.
Ellington knows it’s not logical, but says you feel some responsibility when things go wrong.
Marshall County dispatchers field more than 10,000 calls a month, and dispatchers can easily develop depression after hearing so many traumas on the other end of the line.
Lourdes psychologist Dr. Emily Brame says dispatchers can experience a form of post traumatic stress disorder called vicarious traumatization.
"They may not directly experience the traumatic event, but they’re hearing about the details of the event all day long from the people they’re trying to care for" Brame says.
While it’s best to leave behind any triggers of the trauma, Brame says it’s impossible unless dispatchers don’t pick up the phone, which isn’t an option.
And they can’t legally talk about it to friends and family.
Brame says therapy is the best way to decompress.
"They feel numb or detached from other people or jaded or cynical," Brame said.
Ellington learned that lesson early. "Domestics and those murders, they’re still happening. It doesn’t matter if its 4 in the afternoon or 3 in the morning," she said.
These women say that, as the callers’ caretakers, it never gets any easier.
But they can’t imagine doing anything else because what helps keep them from the darkness is guiding others through it.
Marshall county even installed this new technology after Ponder’s death.
E911 Director Misti Drew told me it was challenging sending out so many units to help and not knowing their exact locations.
They’re testing how well it tracks the units and deputies’ locations in the field.
Marshall County raised the funds for the technology after Chrisman’s death.
It tracks all but fire and rescue
They’re in the stages of testing it in their center: whether it’s effective and beneficial.
We also reached out to KSP. They say as part of their protocol, their entire staff went through an employee assistance program or therapy after Chrisman’s and Ponder’s deaths.