Living with Compassion as an Emergency Dispatcher


I get to handle a lot of different calls being a dispatcher. Some of them affect me more than others. Often, it’s based on how the individual is acting during the call. After 13 years of dispatching, sometimes I can sense what the call is going to be simply because of how the caller responds. A person who is out of breath? They may have just found a loved one unconscious and not breathing. A person who starts to give the address, but stops to yell at someone in the background? This may be a disturbance. For all the times I am correct, there are just as many times when I hang up the phone and tell my partners, “Wow, I thought that was going to be…”

Over the years, I’ve been called every kind of horrible name while on the phone. I’ve learned not to take this personally because I’ve come to understand why someone would think it was ok to talk to a stranger like that. And luckily, I have a good sense of humor, and I can laugh it off most of the time. Sometimes people will apologize, realizing I wasn’t the source of their frustration, but merely an outlet. But apologies and laughter aside, this can still take a toll on me.

A few years ago, I noticed myself getting more and more upset with callers. I became frustrated that they were getting upset over (in my mind) something small and inconsequential. It may have been a parking issue, juvenile complaint, or a municipal violation. Looking back now, I realize I was probably burned out. I was internalizing all this bitterness towards me. I was taking on the pain and frustration from every situation with no way (that I knew of then) to get rid of it. This eventually came to a head when I was diagnosed with acute PTSD after a call. I was fortunate enough to be referred to a class that would help me learn something I thought I already had – compassion. I won’t get into everything that class taught, but the overarching theme was compassion – and how to use it on loved ones, strangers, and, most importantly, yourself.

After completing the class, I set out to interact with my callers differently. One of the first calls I had was a parking complaint. The caller was extremely agitated that a car was parked illegally. Old me would have sighed heavily. New, compassion-and-empathy-filled-me, talked to this person the same way I would’ve talked to myself about something that upset me – with understanding. I was able to better understand that to this person, this was the worst thing to happen at the moment. I was able to overlook the discontent towards me personally in a way I hadn’t seen since first becoming a dispatcher. And, I was able to have a conversation with a citizen rather than just write down the info. Interacting like this was revolutionary to me. No longer did I feel annoyed or upset with callers. I felt more effective in my job. I didn’t feel like rushing to complete every call, simply to be off the phone. I still had to process them quickly and efficiently, but the feeling of irritation was no longer there.

Here’s the best part – I understood when people were yelling at me – even when it was “just” about a parking issue. I was able to take myself out of the two-way conversation and put myself in my caller’s spot. Haven’t we all seen someone park in front of our house or in our spot, and think how dare you, that’s mine, when we know it isn’t. I put a call for service in and then…I let it go. I let go of the frustration, irritation, annoyance because it wasn’t mine to hold on to. It was my caller’s. They had to deal with that in whichever way was best for them. Hopefully, my assistance or an officer’s response helps relieve their feelings. With a deeper understanding of compassion, I was able to offer more of myself to my callers. I could have real conversations with them and offer condolences, gratitude, or commiserate with them. On a fraud call, the caller explained how an unknown suspect was able to take his social security number and open up bank accounts, not once, but twice over the span of a few years. I saw a chance to offer my dismay at the caller having to go through this again. As soon as I did, I could hear the caller’s voice relax, and they laughed. They explained a little more and described how it had affected them and their family. These were not things that I needed to enter in my notes of the call for an officer to read, but important for them to know I had really heard and understood their situation.

I hope being more compassionate has made me a better partner. I used to take things very personally. My co-worker snapped at me? How dare they – who do they think they are?! Sure, it still stings a little when that happens, but now I can put myself in their place and really think about what they are going through to have them act that way. Did they recently take a disturbing call? What’s going on at home? Like me, they’re complicated people, with a lot going on in their heads. So, they may not have even noticed or meant to snap at me. I am in no way a perfect partner at work. But I do come in every day with the goal of being as helpful to my co-workers as possible.

There are days, however, when I struggle to be a good partner and call taker. I want to be this perfect example of compassion and empathy, but I am human, and sometimes I just can’t be that example. When I notice these feelings, which I didn’t use to notice, I make sure that I do something to alleviate them. This can be as simple as talking about my feelings to my partners or stepping out of the room and having a little pep talk with myself. I make sure to meditate and take some deep breaths. More often than not, I can improve my mood and re-center myself with these techniques.

What I realize is this: compassion is a lifelong goal of mine. I will continue to support myself with the self-care techniques I just described. I’ll educate my partners and others on the importance of compassion and empathy. And, I will try to be the best dispatcher I can be for the citizens and our user agencies. I look forward to the many chances I will get to practice my compassion and teach others about it.

About the Author 

Erica Snyder

Communications Specialist and Co-Host of the ‘How to: 911’ Podcast

Erica Snyder, ENP, is a Communications Specialist at the Loveland Emergency Communications Center in Loveland, CO. She is a trainer, EMD-Q, ENP, certified CCT Instructor, and most recently, a co-host on the podcast How To: 911. Erica enjoys educating the public in person, as well, and can be seen at the local farmers markets or giving presentations. She’d always rather be reading, but will happily put down a book to spend time with friends or family, specifically her two awesome nephews.

Erica Snyder

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