A Dispatchers Mental Health

WARNING: This story mentions death, mental health, PTSD and suicide.

I am an Emergency Dispatcher in the 111 Communications Centres. We answer both emergency calls and non-emergency admin calls. I am not usually one to write or speak, but I will not be silenced or gagged by FENZ for speaking about my experience, my role and my mental health.

We work the same rotation as Firefighters, 2 days on, 2 nights on and then four days off in our eight day cycle. All of our shifts are a minimum of 12 hours long, sometimes 15 hours, constantly working and thinking. Our nights are ‘waking shifts’ which means we don’t sleep at night. Instead, we sleep during the day before and after nights which means we essentially lose three days each rotation. We only end up with 3 days off a week maximum, if we’re not working any overtime that is. I have had weeks when I’ve only had one day off.

I enjoy coming to work, being with my ‘second family’ each rotation and getting along with other watches having great laughs and banter. I have always been enthusiastic about FENZ being interested and involved for years even before I worked full-time. We all love our job as it’s a reward being able to help someone every day. Slowly but slowly we have been feeling let down by FENZ as we are often forgotten about or pushed to the side. We are exhausted.

We are not recognised for 99% of the work we do and things we deal with. We are constantly understaffed and have overtimes being offered to cover other positions on other watches across our three Communication Centres weekly, almost daily. We have our lunch and dinner breaks on our own, without anyone else, not even our own mates or colleagues because there is simply not enough staff to be able to do so. On very rare occasions we have been able to, but it could only be three or four times a year. A small feeling of isolation now and then.

We are exposed to a multitude of emotions on a hourly, daily, weekly and monthly rate. Emotions from those in need who are having the worst day of their life and we answer the call not knowing if the person on the other end of the phone will be in a calm or heightened state of mind. You never know and you can’t predict it, you can only react to it the second it is presented to you without any time to even prepare. It is our role to calm them down, extract critical information, determine an emergency response, contact and liaise with other agencies and ensure we protect and do absolutely everything we can do to comfort them and send the right help.

We have a traumatic call, get help on the way and the call ends. We don’t have time to process what we’ve just taken a call to most of the time. It is straight onto the next call. We do have the option of going ‘red light’ (unavailable on the phones) – but we don’t. Why? It leaves the team short and more understaffed than it already is and makes the workload even more stressful for everyone.

FENZ has failed to hire sufficient Dispatchers.

I have personally taken well over a thousand emergency calls for the time I have worked for FENZ which have all gone from one end of the scale to the other. The calls stick with you for a long time and you’re often left thinking “Did I do enough?”, “What more could I have done?”, “What do I do next time?”. The thought is always running through our minds. Walking to the car, driving home, trying to sleep after shifts and on days off late at night, it is always on your mind. I have gone home emotionally unstable, distressed and sometimes in tears when I’ve had one of ‘those’ days. Relationships with partners and family members have sometimes suffered, or taken a bit of damage at the least, but luckily these people understand what we experience and stand by us supporting us better than FENZ ever has or ever could. It affects all of us in Comms, not just one or two people.

A few of the calls that have stuck and I often think back to at random times asking myself those questions include;

  • People who are refusing to get out of their house on fire while inhaling and coughing from the smoke;
  • People who have no idea where they are, trapped, impaled and screaming inside a vehicle which is on fire;
  • Haunting screams from someone burning alive in a truck, and hearing your callers voice tremble as they watch on;
  • Parents screaming in agony after their child was just hit and then run over by a vehicle and now not conscious or breathing;
  • Loved ones in despair staring at their deceased spouse in a car crash while uncontrollably crying and screaming at you to hurry up;
  • Chills from someone who has just seen their workmate pulled into industrial equipment with blood and human matter everywhere;
  • Someone trapped in a factory on fire telling you they are disorientated and cannot find a way out. They’re fully committed to thinking they are going to die all while you try to talk to them, figure out a plan and record details to pass onto the crews, then the phone goes silent and disconnects;
  • Talking to someone in a crash and trying to keep them in a positive headspace, changing their thought processes, them telling you everything about their family and life, and then you’re the last person to hear their voice knowing their last words as they take their last breath and die while on the phone with you.

All of this as well as calls we are not trained for, medical events, suicidal jumpers and family harm.

When I started we were inundated with “IVR” calls – where there are too many 111 calls and not enough Spark Operators. The 111 service becomes a interactive pre-recorded voice message instead of a human answer, where the public push 1, 2 or 3 for the service they need. More often than not it would be Police calls we are taking. Someone hiding in a closet while their spouse, the love of their life, destroys the house turning it inside out while holding a knife or machete and screaming “I’m going to f-n kill you!”. You hear the screaming, the smashing and the fear. You can’t tell them it’ll be alright, because quite honestly it won’t be.

How do you comfort someone in that situation?

How do you get help there faster? You can’t.

I don’t blame them for screaming at us either, they’re having the worst day and experience in their life, it’s our duty to help them and we are their lifeline – even if we’re not trained for it.

The question is, who is OUR lifeline?

We don’t get to know the end result of incidents we take calls for or dispatch 9 times out of 10 either. Did they get the help they needed or not? Did they live or die? Did I do enough? The smallest detail of the most innocent call later on, a baby crying or someone screaming in the background, it can set off alarm bells or triggers that bring back those thoughts time and time again – PTSD.

Do FENZ know we take these calls? Absolutely.

Do FENZ do anything to support or help us? No.

Are we taught with how to deal with these? No. It’s just “something you should know” and deal with on your own or you chat to your workmates who experience the same thing. It’s even worse when you are talking with your workmates trying to clear your head and are then told their friend or family member committed suicide recently.

There is a systematic failure in FENZ.

I work in the Communications Centre but I have also had direct exposure to traumatic events through other means. I have seen dead people, I have seen people who have been burnt alive in a crash and I have done CPR on someones loved one, over and over time again.

The support in place is not sufficient. It is based on self-referral and realistically no one recognises when they need help or support with their mental health. Career Firefighters are exposed to traumatic events all the time, every day as it’s their job and they’re expected to do it without failure. Volunteer Firefighters also attend traumatic calls and they’re affected by it as well. It affects everyone. We can only hope one day sufficient support will exist and it will recognise these events for Dispatchers and Firefighters, Career and Volunteer but until then we all stand together.

Something needs to change in this organisation, and quickly. When will it?