“This isn’t me. This isn’t who I normally am. Why do I feel so broken? ” In 2015, Nicole Janey successfully managed an officer down call. Despite the recognition she received for a job well done, she took an absence from her 911 career to handle the mental and emotional aftermath of handling a critical incident. In this piece, Nicole transparently discusses how she struggled and healed from a mental health condition that is rampant in the 911 profession, but rarely discussed. She will take readers through her journey of self-discovery, as well as give some insight on how we can continue to change the conversation and support those who are facing the same battle.
Warning: The following article could contain triggers for those who have experienced violence, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), mental health issues or substance issues. Please read only if you feel safe to do so.
Let’s get one thing straight: no one signs up for the 911 profession, and asks for the PTSD that often accompanies it. No job description has ever said “How would you like to serve your community and help others, all while undergoing major personality changes and questioning your own sanity?” Turnover in the 911 field is abysmal, which is why I’m dumbfounded that we are not doing more to take care of those who are truly invested in this profession. It boggles my mind that we sink so much money and time into training programs in an attempt to turn out high quality employees, and yet the mental health aspect is ignored completely. An employee who logistically makes a mistake is met with coaching, warnings, or offers of remedial training. Yet the moment they experience a normal, human reaction to a stressful situation, they are turned away, fired, or told to “suck it up.” In an industry that relies on logical, common sense thinking to help those in need, we are quick to pass judgement and turn a blind eye on our own. We are an industry known for eating our own. This is not self-sustainable. Critical incidents in our industry are rising, not declining. Burnout will continue to rise. Qualified candidates will be harder to find. And meanwhile, the ones who are truly committed, who can handle 99.9% of the calls coming in, are being told “sink or swim.” There are life preservers and swimming lessons and rafts available. And yet, we would rather let them drown then reach out a helping hand.
I know. I’ve been there. Feet not touching the bottom. Head going under, only to pop up gasping for air. Yelling at my supervisors for help. “Sorry, there’s nothing we can do. You were hired to swim….so swim already.”
My story is not that different from many others out there. And I’m not that different from the others in my field. Prior to my event, I had worked hard to earn a reputation as calm, level-headed civilian dispatcher who believed in officer safety above all, and knew that tone and confidence could set the tone on the radio. I was that dispatcher, as I found out later, who could get on the radio, and the sound of my voice put my units at ease.
So, on March 27, 2015, when that first officer called in “shots fired!”, I went about my job as normal. Calm voice, maintaining control, there for my units going through one of their worst nightmares: one of theirs had been shot point blank in the face during a traffic stop gone wrong. I spent six hours managing the event, the aftermath, and the protestors that showed up later. At the end of the night, my relief came in, and I was able to walk out the door. At one point during the shift, a couple of co-workers tried to intercede on my behalf. “She needs peer support.” “She needs to be taken off the channel.” The response received: “She’s just a civilian, she’s doing fine.”
Two days later, after desperately trying to silence the audio replaying in my head, I went home and got black out drunk. I went to some very dark places. And in the morning, I woke up horrified at where I had been. I reached out to my supervisors (sworn, not civilian, for inquiring minds). I asked for help. I was referred to help, where I was told “We don’t typically deal with civilians. We’re making an exception for you.” The goal, they explained, was to get me better so I could go back to doing my job. I was given a sheet instructing me to eat well, exercise and monitor myself for the signs of PTSD. They meant well, but the general feeling I got was that they were protecting themselves from liability.
Time off was initially denied due to low staffing levels. When I went to the high ranking official in my department, I was told I needed to write a letter explaining why I wanted to take a week off. My union representative warned me not to, as the department could then make me undergo a psych exam upon return, as a way to “weed” me out. Now, on top of mental stress, I’m also worried about my livelihood.
At this point I am a few months out from the incident. I received an employee of the month award, a Commissioner’s commendation, and special recognition from a state law enforcement organization. I heard nothing but praise about how I handled the incident itself. Which made what I was experiencing even more of a mind game. “If I did such an outstanding job, then why do I feel like I’m going crazy?”
Calm, reasonable Nicole turned into an irritable brat who would have been happy to fight anyone who challenged her. I became a walking grenade who was ready to blow the moment someone tapped her. No one noticed. Or if they did, they didn’t care to pull me aside. No one noticed how volatile I was acting. How easily stressed I got. How I avoided anything to do with the shooting. I would walk away from conversations, or leave the room. I asked them to change the channel when the video of the shooting was released to the media…and I saw it for the first time while working on the same channel. No one noticed that I would ask for a break after handling a call where an officer stopped answering their radio. If anyone had followed me, they would have found me double over gasping for air. Even after the incident, I reported to work the same channel, same units, and same radio traffic. It’s what was expected of me.
Everyone noticed the day I walked past that channel and took up one of the break positions. That was one of the lowest days in my career. My pride was gone. I had been managing the busiest, toughest channel in the city. By refusing to cover the channel I thought I was admitting defeat. I felt utterly alone, and like I had lost all ability to reason. I had even pulled my supervisor aside. Apparently they felt it warranted having two supervisors present, but not so serious that they needed to consult with a higher up. My request? “I need a break from dispatching. I’m a liability. You don’t want me on the radio.” Their response: We hired you to dispatch. So dispatch.
I had a panic attack on the floor a few weeks later. Shortly after I put my two weeks’ notice in. Months of struggling, asking for help, questioning my sanity – Was I just imagining the riptide pulling me into darker and darker thoughts? – and I desperately made a break for the shore that was a job outside the 911 profession completely.
The entire time, I kept asking “Why did this break me? This isn’t me. This is not who I normally am.” I know I was acting like a different person. Instead of being happy, level headed, reasonable Nicole, I felt like an animal who had been cornered by the monsters in her mind. Which is why I left. I feared my sanity. I feared for my officer’s safety. I didn’t want to be one those dispatchers who become the target of a news story due to inaction.
During my time away, I continued to struggle a bit. No, I wasn’t surrounded by 911 calls and officers yelling for help. But by leaving that behind, I felt that I had left my purpose behind too. I have no doubt I struggled with depression. Eventually I was able to breathe a bit, enjoy the perks of “regular” hours. But I had no pride in my job. Six months after I left, I was awarded the “Civilian of the Year” award by the police foundation. At this event, I was told “You should have had more support. It wasn’t right what happened to you.” I was dumbfounded. Those words kept coming back at me. Specifically, the word “support.”
A year after I left, I suffered a physical injury that gave me limited mobility for some time. I hit bottom. I gained weight and I was the heaviest I had ever been. I began to recognize that I was incredibly unhappy with my life, and that I needed to change. I desperately missed the sense of purpose that my career in 911 had brought me. And yet, I was terrified at the thought of returning. I struggled with being utterly and completely broken, and still wanting to be in the 911 field. I started hearing more words like “peer support” and “mindset” and “mindfulness.” I started to recognize that my own mindset was unhealthy: cynical, in denial about the powers of self-care, and swamped with my own self-doubt about my reaction to that day. And, after giving serious consideration to the need to change, decided to re-enter the 911 field.
The journey wasn’t easy. Although, I’m incredibly proud of who I am today, which is vastly different from the old me, pre-incident. I had to invest a lot of time at changing my mindset. I had to choose self-worth and self-pride over putting myself down. But it took a dear friend calling me on it for me to see it. That brokenness I felt, I owned so hard. It took it on a burden that only I could be the sole bearer of. I have been through numerous life events that could easily knock anyone down, and yet my resiliency always had me right back up on my feet, persevering and pushing on. My life has been full of hard work and a stubbornness to make the most out of my life. So why, WHY did this event break me down to nothing? One day I apologized to my friend, and made a self-depreciating joke to brush off why I had made a mistake. And she looked at me said “oh honey, that’s not you. It’s the trauma.”
My brokenness was not me. The thoughts in my head of depression and isolation and utter despair were not who I really was. So how did I get help? Support, and putting myself around people who recognize that our industry is more than just emergency communications and policies and training. I won a scholarship to attend a conference where I met others who had been in the same boat, or recognized the need for change and were championing for change. I read books and articles on mindset and mindfulness. I surrounded myself with people who would never hesitate to reach out a helping hand. I was determined to be like them, because for once I saw how things in the 911 industry could be better. I started practicing self-care. I completed EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), which is a type of therapy that seeks to retrain your brain and the way it processed a traumatic incident. And I started to be brutally honest, and speak the truth about my incident, and the aftermath I suffered through. Because, above all, I never want someone else to feel that same isolation.
I’m not telling my story to call people out. I’m telling it in an attempt to draw attention to a topic that is ignored and feared in our world, and yet exists in every center. I have the belief that once you acknowledge a fear, you have two choices: ignore it, and allow it to fester. Or acknowledge it, meet it head on, and shed light to overcome it. I choose to be a light, in the hopes it attracts others in the dark, who, like me, were wandering alone and afraid for so long. I speak out to open the conversation on a topic that has gone ignored for too long. I hope that if you’re in a position of leadership, you choose to hold out a helping hand to those who are floundering. I pray that if you’re in the water and feel yourself slipping under, or struggling, that you yell for help. The only way we can make progress and change is by supporting one another and acknowledge the problem. The future of our profession depends on it.
About the Author
911 Center Supervisor for Chelsea Emergency Management
Nicole has been working in the public safety dispatching field for 15 years. Upon completing her social work degree from Gordon College, she realized she had a passion for helping those in immediate crisis, and became a 911 Telecommunicator on a municipal level. Highlights from her career include working the Boston Marathon Bombing, and successfully managing an officer down call. Nicole is currently the 911 Center Supervisor for Chelsea Emergency Management. In addition to her responsibilities to the center and the city, she pulls from experience to advocate for the 911 profession in order to improve mental health, wellness and turnover. She is also involved in critical incident stress management. She is currently a member of NENA, and works on the Wellness Committee Peer Support Work Group and Acute Stress Work Group. As a side project, she is currently curating “You Are Not Alone: Portraits of the Gold Line Family”, a photography project that seeks to put a face to all members of the 911 profession, and showcase how everyone is affected by the job, regardless of role.