Are Dispatchers Exposed to Trauma?

[This is the second of four Blog Posts written by Dispatchers that focus on Dispatching that we are featuring this week (beginning Aug. 27, 2018).]

By Tracey Kern, Center Manager, Fort Collins Interagency Dispatch Center

When I first started in Dispatch in July 2003, my answer to “Are dispatchers exposed to Trauma?” would have been: “No.”

After all, I thought, we are on the radio. How much trauma can we really encounter? Fast forward 15 years later. Today, my answer is a definite YES!

There’s no question that Dispatch is the most important piece of the plan that everyone always forgets.

Dispatch Tracey Kern - Copy

Tracey Kern

‘I Need Four Ambulances and a Coroner!’

On October 26th, 2006, the day started as any other day.

I came in and heard there was a fire that had started in our neighboring Dispatch Zone that was Mutual Aid for us. Because it originated on their ground they were the ordering point. I picked my assigned frequencies for the day. I was going to give my friend the Primary Forest Service Frequency assignment. I would be her back-up because even though it wasn’t our fire, she would still be busy with it.

At 7:57 a.m., the Forest Service radio went off: “San Bernardino Emergency Traffic.” My friend answered: “San Bernardino, Go Ahead.” “Engine 57 has been burned over. I need four ambulances and a coroner!”

As a Dispatcher hearing this call, my heart stopped. I couldn’t breathe. I started questioning: Is that what I really just heard? Then, as the field’s lifeline, in the next moment I quickly snapped out of it, realizing those field units are depending on me to get them the help they need.

So my friend and I got Medical en route and started making the notifications. As the news spread, the entire Forest was given Admin Leave—except for Dispatch. We had an Accident Investigation Team coming in to support. And we also now had other agencies to Dispatch for. So we went along with business as usual.

That is When I Blew-Up

A week later, an Accident Investigation Team member came into our Dispatch Center and said: “We are bringing Engine 57 off the line today.” My friend and fellow Dispatcher said: “OK.” This Accident Investigation Team member looked at her and said: “I know you don’t understand in your pea brain the magnitude of this, but it is a big deal.”

I watched and waited for my supervisors to step in, only to see them do nothing. That is when I blew-up at this man. “Of course we know the significance of this action,” I told him. “We were here when the first call came in. We have done the moments of silence in memory of all the Engine Crew members and we are still here doing our jobs. So don’t tell me that I don’t know the significance and magnitude of this tragedy.”

Thankfully, another supervisor heard this entire commotion and stood up for us and banned that guy from the Dispatch floor. At that point, the Agency finally decided to offer Dispatch CISM help if we wanted it. But, for me, it was too late. I had been coping with this incident my own way. I didn’t need their pity help.

Grow as a Person and Leader

Every year during that week from October 26th to October 31st—when the last Engine 57 crew member passed away—it is hard for me. I don’t have to read the book, read reports or listen to recordings of the incident. This incident is forever recorded in my head. It is triggered in October and in different situations.

I have tried to use this tragic event to help me grow as a person and as a leader.

More Resources to Quickly Provide Help

In 2016 on my Forest a firefighter was burned on a prescribed fire. My Dispatchers did an excellent job. And I was pleased to see that—immediately—CISM was offered to anyone who wanted this input.

Today, thanks to the CISM groups and the “You Will Not Stand Alone” class, there are more resources to quickly provide the help that anyone needs. Every year I play the radio traffic recordings from that firefighter burn incident to my seasonal Dispatchers. I want them to hear and experience the voices during a stressful situation.

I tell these Dispatchers that it is OK if a call comes in and you can’t handle it and need to pass it on to a supervisor. And I ensure them that it’s OK if after this you need to talk to someone.

All We Ask of You

Last year I watched the movie “Sully”. At the end Sully tells the FAA that during their investigation they forgot the human factor, the 5-6 seconds that you are human, before you snap out of it and start doing what you need to do. I tell my Dispatchers it is OK to be “Human”.

As much growing as the fire agencies have done, Dispatch still seems to be the last factor anyone ever thinks about when it comes to RX Burns, Severity, Funding, Staffing, AAR, Team Closeouts, etc.

A lot of plans couldn’t be accomplished without the support of Dispatch. And yet, in my experience and the experience of other Dispatchers who I talk to, Dispatch is always the last to get notified about significant activities and events. This includes: RX burn plans and the need for extended Dispatch hours; bringing in additional severity resources to our Zone (and not thinking about this impact to Dispatch); IMT closeouts; and incident AARs.

We are always here at the end of the radio—sometimes not taking lunches or breaks just to make sure you have that lifeline available when you need it. All we ask is that you remember us and invite us to the communications table from the very beginning.

3 thoughts on “Are Dispatchers Exposed to Trauma?

  1. Dispatch is often forgotten during these times and I appreciate this article greatly. Here’s our story…A couple of months ago, our district was faced with an employee (a Park Ranger) who went missing from her home (located on the forest). Our fire crews, foresters, and her fellow park rangers spent two days combing the woods with law enforcement trying to find her. In Dispatch, we had an incident card open on it and we were worried about her. All of us had talked to her on a daily basis and she was very well liked. Ultimately, we learned she had been murdered and her body was found in another state. The search crews were immediately put on admin leave. I was covering Dispatch that day and was mentally numb once I heard the news. A few minutes later, I realized with all these crews off duty, I needed to move the remaining crews around to make sure fire coverage was available. I did so but could tell I was in a fog. All I could think about was my Park Ranger who I would never see or talk to again. It’s tough, but we got through it. A CISM team came in and helped out. A few weeks later, we had a memorial service, and at the last minute, the decision was made to have one of our local Dispatchers do the last call. I thought that was very….difficult. So, to whomever is reading this, remember your Dispatchers. We may not be physically on the line, but We Are There.

  2. I have been thru tragedies on the fire line and in dispatch. As a dispatcher I still fill the trauma like I did as a fire fighter. Every event accumulates and you find yourself in a moment where everything floods your emotions. You never know what will set it off, a sound, a smell, or something you saw. When is does you are monetarily frozen. After an aviation fatality, several days went by before anyone asked if I was ok. It has been 6 years now and several things have been done to honor the pilots and dispatch has been left out. “Oh we forgot about dispatch” as they look at you with the why does dispatch need to know look.

  3. Our dispatchers are our daily lifeline. When things go terribly wrong out there, that ‘lifeline’ can become very literal.

    Surely anyone on a fire who has ever listened to a tragedy unfold over the radio, with tears in their eyes and their heart banging against their chest, can understand the magnitude of what dispatchers deal with, while still maintaining their professionalism and clearheadedness. Whatever consideration we give to crews on the line after a serious incident needs to be extended to our dispatchers, every time and without prejudice. Anything less is unacceptable, full stop.

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