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Dispatcher Heather MacDonald. Photo by Todd Cameron.

A call for relief: a 911 emergency dispatcher opens up about stress and anxiety

By Jason Myerson on March 29, 2017

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” –Viktor E. Frankl

When I first met Heather it started with chirps and chatter over our mutual interest of martial arts. We clicked like a binary code, as if we had known each other for decades. Heather and I sparked into conversation with “Yes!” and “Of course!” Smiles and exclamation marks flared out with hand gestures from simple understandings that have a common surprise when considered. Heather has the clear eyed spirit to uplift those around her, an honest smile, and the faint hint of an east coast accent. She is a 911 emergency dispatcher here in Ottawa – a line of work that demands a certain fortification and understanding.

A few years ago I had the opportunity to sit in on some of the calls received by emergency dispatchers and it was an experience I haven’t forgotten. It was only an hour, but I was glad to be unplugged afterwards. The nerve-racking, heart-wrenching, sweat-inducing calls received, one after the other, were enough to make one drift into wide-eyed existentialism by the end of it. I could easily see how long-term exposure to that kind of stress could increase the risk for depression, anxiety and poor health.

Heather MacDonald shares her experience as an emergency dispatcher. Photo by Todd Cameron.

Heather MacDonald shares her experience as an emergency dispatcher. Photo by Todd Cameron.

Imagine for a moment walking towards your office and your heartbeat starts to increase from the triggers of familiarity. You try and shrug it off, but the signs of anxiety come narrowing into focus. You think about reaching out to a coworker or supervisor that day, but you’re worried that the topic of your feelings will be awkward, belittled, or judged. Perhaps even looked at like a sickness — contagious if uttered. Your mouth starts to dry as greetings to your colleagues constrict your throat from an uneasiness and shortness of breath. On the way to your workstation your feet feel cold and your hands begin to tingle while you sit down to type. A deep breath in, and you’ve collected yourself into the callused calm that allows you to perform your work with incredible poise. For the next 11 hours, you plug into phone calls from people in dire need of help. To say that stress is a central theme among emergency dispatchers would be a truism, however, one that leaves out the metallic back-of-the-mouth taste of the experience that I had, for just one hour.

“I can’t do this, unless I find a way to deal with the stress.”

When Heather told me what she did for work, I imagined that there weren’t many happy endings to her day. It must take great effort to cultivate the thoughts that create positive feelings for these individuals to answer the call of those in need of help, day in and day out. Heather explains that many people cope with stress by pretending it doesn’t exist, or knowing and choosing to ignore it. Others, by stupefying themselves with alcohol, drugs, sex, eating, outward blame and anger, staying busy, or seeking adrenaline boosting activities. Some of these may look healthy on the surface, but if we aren’t able to be still and sit with our pain it will demand we examine it at the least convenient of times.

Acknowledging and defining our anxiety takes a mammoth amount of courage and compassion for oneself, and considerable patience in a fog of desperation. “To be able to change what you thought was beyond your control is incredibly self-empowering.” I scrambled to scribble her words while Heather spoke. Heather also notes that the process is difficult, and cultivating your positive inner dialogue takes practice, but it’s paramount in the search for equanimity.

Heather MacDonald. Photo by Todd Cameron.

Heather MacDonald. Photo by Todd Cameron.

Types of stress like compassion stress, occupational stress, critical incident stress, cumulative stress, PTSD, as well as the spectrum of depression and forms of anxiety need to be further addressed among our emergency responders. I was hard-pressed to find emergency dispatchers categorically in the same company as first responders, yet they deal with real time suffering and are a critical component to the outcome of emergency calls. After nearly a decade of working as an emergency dispatcher in Ottawa, Heather has tussled with time, finding ways of dealing with the cost of caring. During one of the many conversations about the deeper meanings of life, I asked Heather about her insights into stress, compassion, and ways of engaging her own mental health.

“I had to get better at being myself.”

Sitting with close company, talking about life’s trivialities, while inside you’re suffering from your own realities is individual in its circumstance. Yet it is happening to an increasing number of people in our society. However, anxiety or depression could convince us that we are all alone, lost in our struggles—a prisoner to ourselves. Heather explains that when she acknowledged her depression, she began to observe it like an outsider looking in. It wasn’t a mystery anymore, but a defined problem, and a solution became a beacon of hope.

“It takes a deliberate reflection into the best practices of helping someone. First, I had to learn how to connect without draining myself and to energize my body and mind each day in the ways that suited my lifestyle.” Practicing mindfulness is Heather’s first step to conscious decision making. Considering how she feels and why, then becoming open to the possibility that she can change that feeling. Heather finds her peace of mind through yoga, meditation, talking to her friends, spending time with her cats, and her relentless pursuit of self-awareness.

Emergency dispatchers are the first point of contact with the public. They are assigned to decode, during distress, all necessary information before sending it to the appropriate emergency personnel. Little can we appreciate the level of on-point multitasking that the emergency dispatcher must undergo, managing emotions, working under pressure, making rapid and effective decisions, and relaying the correct information for the most supportive outcome for all people involved. Relief for all levels of emergency responders should be understood, encouraged, and supported. It seems intuitive to foster the personal care for the people who serve as a lifeline for police, and public.

The statistics on mental health are fundamentally flawed since the nature of the affliction is most deceptive in its silence. The terminology that we have previously prescribed has only driven the voice further inward, reluctant to become one of the many labelled as sick. However, we have begun to recognize that stress, depression, and anxiety are more of a function of the normal human condition—mental health. “One of the biggest barriers to my own healing was that I couldn’t live openly, and couldn’t ask help from anyone,” MacDonald recalls feeling.

“I think what I love the most is being able to be there for someone in need of help.”

Heather and first responders alike experience a role that merits a closer look at what it means to manage our personal mental health. She has taught me how to self-monitor, and be compassionate to myself first, in the pursuit of helping others. Fostering a healthy work environment as well as individual mental health should be at the forefront of our services. It should start there.

I was taught recently that the answers aren’t in the branches, they’re at the root. Life will undoubtedly give us, tragedies, emergencies, and hangups, yet there are those that will always be there to answer the call. The root of our services, our emergency dispatchers.


Stay tuned for the mini documentary Jason Myerson is producing for Rogers Television.