Washington County Sheriff's Office dispatcher Jason Hall receives hundreds of calls in a single day but one still sticks in his mind four years later.
On April 8, 2008, Hall had to answer a call for help from one of his own, after Sgt. Scott Parks was shot while responding to a domestic dispute.
"The night Sgt. Parks was shot, that was one of the most difficult," said Hall, a five-year dispatcher and 19-year volunteer firefighter. "He had been shot in the face. You have to be able to react and do the best you can to get him help. It's difficult and it's stressful, but you can't let those things get to you."
The Marietta Times
Marietta Police Department dispatcher Stephen Baumgard works in the dispatch center of the police department.
A new study by Northern Illinois University has found that emergency dispatchers are at high risk for developing post-traumatic stress disorder. Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is an anxiety disorder that can occur after a traumatic event and is typically associated with military veterans and emergency workers like police officers and firefighters.
Handling everything from the routine calls like traffic violations and property crime complaints to the serious calls like murders and suicides, police and emergency dispatchers are the first point of contact in crisis, whether big or small.
"When the phone rings, you answer it. You have to be ready to take on any situation," Hall said.
Most common causes of stress
for emergency dispatchers
Calls involving the unexpected injury or death of a child.
Unexpected adult deaths.
Source: Northern Illinois University
As Marietta Police Department dispatcher Stephen Baumgard noted, dispatchers are the first responder before the first responder, and it can make the job difficult on many days.
"How can you love a job, that you sometimes hate?" said Baumgard, a 17-year veteran dispatcher who has been with the department for 15 years.
NIU's study, which analyzed responses from 171 emergency dispatchers from 24 states, found that people don't have to be present on the front line of an emergency to suffer the stress that goes with it.
Several Marietta and Washington County dispatchers said they didn't feel they've ever had PTSD but have had stress-related health effects.
Dave Tornes, who retired as a dispatcher from the Washington County Sheriff's Office after 26 years, but still works for the office, noted high blood pressure as a result of his stress level while on the job. He said there have been some calls, like the fire at Shell Chemical in 1994, that resulted in considerable loss of sleep.
"It seemed like we didn't even go home until it was done," Tornes said.
Receiving literally hundreds of calls a day, the stress level for dispatchers is high, resulting in tension that they're expected to leave at the end of the shift when they walk out the door.
"You do have to leave it behind," Baumgard said. "You can't take it with you. If you take it away from the work place with you, it will affect your quality of life."
Lack of closure is one of several stress factors for dispatchers, as they frequently will receive a call and dispatch emergency services for aid without ever knowing what happened to the victim.
"I don't think as a dispatcher you really get the closure. You send the call and you may find out days later, weeks later, months later what happened," said Tornes.
For Hall, one of the biggest stress relievers on the night of Parks' shooting came from Washington County Sheriff Larry Mincks, who regularly called officers on duty with updates of Parks' condition, providing comfort in a calm voice.
The fact that Parks soon returned to duty also helped, but it was a difficult situation and call to receive, Hall said.
Tornes benefited from the fact his wife, Patrice, was also a dispatcher when he started and he could talk to her about the days' stress and have a sympathetic ear.
Baumgard has also been in the hot seat, notably on May 10, 2011, when a bomb threat was called in to Washington State Community College.
As the point of contact in the emergency, Baumgard had to get police officers and EMS to the scene and also began working with the phone company to track down where the call originated.
Even as he was working to handle a high priority crisis, Baumgard still had to answer calls from citizens, as every call is a crisis to someone.
"You've not only got a serious situation at hand, you've got all these other calls. I've got a parking complaint, a dog barking," Baumgard explained.
That, too, leads to stress for dispatchers as they frequently go from one call to the next without any recovery time between.
The type of calls, too, lead to stress, as there are some calls that simply are impossible to forget.
For Hall, another of those calls came in November 2010 when a toddler fell into a septic tank in Waterford. Hall had callers on the phone trying to provide them guidance on how they might get the child out of the tank while getting emergency responders to the scene.
"Not being able to put my two hands in to help was very difficult," Hall said.
Baumgard once handled a call where a man was holding his young child hostage with a firearm.
"He was barricaded in the home with his child threatening harm. That's stress," Baumgard said.
Once the call was received, Baumgard had Marietta Police officers establish a perimeter while the sheriff office's Special Response Team, or SRT, responded to the scene.
After contacting the SRT team, Baumgard got the suspect on the phone, and by remaining calm and establishing a connection with him was able to talk the man out of the house without harming the child, ending a stressful day with a good feeling.
"The officer's safe. The victim's safe. The suspect's safe. Everybody goes home at the end of the day, except him. He went to jail," Baumgard said.
Those moments of success aren't the norm for dispatchers, who have to remain calm at all times and be of a particularly strong emotional composition.
"It's your job. It's what you do. You take the information, you dispatch the squad or the deputy to the emergency," Tornes said.
Dispatchers staying calm and collected no matter the situation, is important, said Marietta Police Capt. Jeff Waite.
"What they do is critical," he said. "They are responsible for getting all the necessary information, and a lot of the officer safety depends on them asking the right questions at the time the call comes in."