When 9-1-1 Happens to You

[Originally published in the March/April 2023 issue of PSC magazine.]

By Patrice Coleman

While public safety telecommunicators’ exposure to others’ trauma is part of the profession, the chance of experiencing a personal tragedy during a telecommunicator’s career is also a reality. As a result of exposure or involvement in a traumatic event, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may occur and have a major impact in the life of a telecommunicator. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), “PTSD is a disorder that develops in some people who have experienced a shocking, scary or dangerous event.” While there are telecommunicators who recognize professional resources are imperative to continue in a demanding profession, others internalize feelings and avoid seeking resources due to fear of judgment or having their information not remain confidential. Addressing and recovering from PTSD is possible with options that may include peer support, other mental wellness resources offered by your emergency communications center (ECC) or private options that may diagnose PTSD. For most people, PTSD is short-term. By seeking help immediately with available resources, PTSD sufferers give themselves a higher probability for proper recovery and can more readily see a path to remaining in their chosen field. As telecommunicators, we work under a common theme of “controlling situations,” but we do not have control of traumatic events happening to us. However, we do control our response and decide if we call it quits or continue in the 9-1-1 profession.

While leading an amazing team of telecommunicators, personal tragedy happened to me, and I questioned whether I would continue in the 9-1-1 profession or if I would quit.

On a Sunday night in August 2015, my life changed forever. My brother was in imminent danger, and I knew that I would have to call 9-1-1 in my native state of Alabama, where I no longer resided. My father served in in public safety for 27 years in Alabama, so I had the phone number for a non-emergency police response memorized. That night I dialed the non-emergency phone number for the police and I became that frantic caller on the other side of the phone without an address and in extreme panic mode. I could not remember the street name or the specific name of the public location where my brother was experiencing a crisis.. Frantically, I attempted to recall the street and location name, but I could not. There was only a visual recollection of the location so I had to provide descriptive information to the telecommunicator who answered my call. Once he understood what I was communicating about my brother’s location, he assured me that a response was enroute, due to another call received at the ECC. Tone speaks volumes, and the telecommunicator’s tone was of genuine empathy.

That tragic night I joined a group that I did not know there was a name for and that I did not want to be a member of — “survivor of suicide loss.” After a couple of weeks, the reality of the loss of my brother felt like a severe gut-punch and heart-ripping pain, introducing emotions that I neither understand nor recognized. I would report to work and make every attempt to motivate my team, but on the inside I was drowning in a pool of painful feelings. I had to decide which journey to take — heal and continue leading a team in my profession, or heal and detour from the profession. If I decided to continue in the profession, I would have to figure out my course of processing the loss. I discovered that a strong support system is crucial, in addition to a well-rounded plan including multiple resources. I credit a peer support group as being instrumental during my journey to process my grief and trauma.

Peer support is one resource that ECCs continue to introduce as a method for telecommunicators to speak with a peer in a confidential manner. The state of Alabama (the destination of my call that night) took a large step in 2018 with Gov. Kay Ivey signing a statute into law, 36-21-14, requiring confidential peer support for public safety employees, which includes telecommunicators. The Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA) coordinated the operation of peer support with the Alabama Alliance for Peer Support (ALLEAPS). The statute states that all communication with a certified peer support member is privileged and confidential. Certified peer supporters in Alabama’s program receive training to proactively recognize signs of trauma in telecommunicators. Additionally, the state’s peer support program travels throughout Alabama and will assist other states. In the event of trauma connected to an ECC or a personal trauma experienced by a telecommunicator, peer support is “boots on the ground” within three hours.

I participated in the survivors of suicide loss peer support — strictly for those with suicide loss — rather than ECC peer support programs, which are a great resource for recovery and healing from trauma. I incorporated resources outside my agency as it was the best fit for what I needed, specifically with coping mechanisms for triggers from listening to 9-1-1 audio involving suicide and certain violent crimes. To avoid triggers, my television consumption changed from crime shows to light-hearted comedy. For two years following my loss, I was intentional about accepting the resources and practicing self-care so I could remain emotionally available for my family and work team. My small professional support system was exceptional and respected my privacy, providing reassurance that I was on the proper path for healing and continuing in the profession. Although the path was initially challenging, through the healing process and managing the triggers I figured out a greater purpose from the pain. That purpose was and remains to authentically see past the exterior of those with whom I cross paths both personally and professionally. We all have a story, and one kind word can keep someone from “falling off the cliff.” Volunteer work in the mental health arena is part of my continued healing, in addition to having a strong awareness regarding self-care. For me, self-care includes meditation, listening to music and dancing like no one is watching. Seven years after my traumatic experience, I am proud to say that I healed from my trauma and remain in the 9-1-1 profession. I continue to have contact with the members of the survivors of suicide loss peer support group that were instrumental in my journey, but our relationships have morphed from helping each other survive to helping each other thrive. I address each day with a positive mindset, ready to help others.

If you are experiencing trauma or PTSD, know that resources are available and there is hope. Own your story, release the trauma, and know that you can recover with the assistance of a great support system and professional resources.

Dr. Tim Faulk contributed to this story.

Patrice Coleman, RPL, ENP, CMCP, has been in public safety communications for 21 years and is the Training and Quality Assurance Manager for Metropolitan Nashville Department of Emergency Communications. She holds a Master of Business Administration. Coleman is also a crisis intervention trainer for dispatchers. Coleman is the second vice president for Tennessee APCO.