Dispatchers in Phoenix seek PTSD help, first responder status

By: - August 15, 2019 4:11 pm

A 911 dispatcher for the Penn State University public safety system. Photo by Penn State University | Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Emergency service dispatchers in Phoenix are gearing up for a meeting with city officials in an attempt to shore up emergency funding for staff, new systems and therapy resources as nationally, dispatchers are awaiting a decision in Washington D.C. that could impact how they are classified. 

Currently, 911 dispatchers in Arizona and across the nation are not considered first responders. Instead, they are generally considered clerical or administrative staff. 

“Dispatchers are the first of the first responders,” Frank Piccioli, President of the local chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said to the Arizona Mirror. 

Piccioli, a 911 dispatcher himself, has been on the front lines of trying to get extra considerations given to dispatchers for trauma they endure during the course of their duties. 

He’s also been on the front lines of that trauma. 

“It was deafening on the phone,” Piccioli said, recalling a time he was trying to talk to a suicidal man, only to hear a gunshot followed by silence. Moments later, he had moved on to the next call.

A study by the University of Central Florida found that emergency dispatchers are just as likely, if not more likely in some instances, to have job-related PTSD as those who have served in combat roles in the military. 

“Consequences of mistakes and vicariously experiencing the distress of a civilian or fellow first responder magnify the high-stress nature of these work conditions,” the report says. “The current study highlights the need for further examination of stress-related outcomes in the emergency dispatcher population.”

Piccioli himself was unaware that he had PTSD from his job until years later, and although the City of Phoenix allows dispatchers to access the Firestrong and Bulletproof counseling services given to firefighters and police, Piccioli says these services still don’t adequately address all the root problems that can make trauma fester in the minds of dispatchers. 

One way to fix that is by getting dispatchers classified as first responders, Piccioli said, and a bill working its way through Congress could do just that. 

The 911 SAVES Act

Currently the Standard Occupational Classification System does not classify emergency dispatchers as first responders. 

This means that dispatchers are not allowed certain benefits that are given to firefighters and police, such as being able to retire after 20 years of work. 

The 911 SAVES Act would change that and make dispatchers federally recognized as first responders, opening them up to a bevy of benefits. 

However, there hasn’t been much movement on the bill. The website GovTrack.Us gives the bill a 3 percent chance of being enacted. 

Currently, the bill is waiting to be considered by the U.S. House after it was introduced in March with bipartisan support.

Arizona Reps. Greg Stanton and Raul Grijalva, both Democrats, are two of the 103 co-sponsors of the bill; that group includes 69 Democrats and 34 Republicans. 

Piccioli and dispatchers in the Valley aren’t going to wait for politicians in Washington to get meaningful change done locally, though. 

Bad memories

Piccioli can pinpoint the time when he first started to realize he had PTSD related to his job of 18 years. 

It was Christmastime and a familiar song started playing when, suddenly, he was remembering an incident. 

A decade earlier, he was giving instructions to some young children on how to do CPR on their mother who was unresponsive. They were crying as they kept trying to do CPR on their mother by the Christmas tree as Piccioli kept watching his computer screen to see when the fire department would arrive. 

Their cries kept repeating in his head while the Christmas song played. 

Researchers found that dispatchers are more likely to experience this particular type of PTSD. 

These “intrusive symptoms,” where a person’s thoughts will be invaded by a memory of an experience, were found to be more prevalent in dispatchers than in members of the military who had served in combat zones, the study found. 

However, soldiers were more likely to engage in physical avoidance of situations as opposed to cognitive avoidance. Researchers concluded that is likely due to the fact that dispatchers experience trauma vicariously. 

Currently, the City of Phoenix is looking into creating a focus group to look into the issue of how PTSD is impacting its dispatchers. 

Some solutions proposed to alleviate stress have included bringing in a therapy dog, but Piccoli says that there was no room in the budget. 

The budget is also creating other issues that Piccoli says are affecting him and other dispatchers. 

Staffing of 911 was reported to have been part of the reason behind slow response times for Phoenix Police, according to a Phoenix New Times report in 2017, and its an issue that hasn’t gotten better. 

“There’s no downtime anymore,” Piccoli said, adding that many dispatchers are eating meals at their desks. This is in part due to the state’s booming population and low staffing levels, which has led to high stress among dispatchers. 

Years ago, Piccoli said he remembers that, after a particularly difficult call, dispatchers would often get downtime to process or even meet with people involved in the call. Now that doesn’t happen, as dispatchers are having to hang up on calls early just to make sure they can get to the next one. 

“You don’t know if that next one is a small call or a big one,” Piccioli said. 

Piccioli is mostly confident that the city will listen to the concerns of first responders and thinks that the bill working its way through the halls of power in D.C. is a “no-brainer” but he still has his concerns. 

One of his next steps to tackle is getting the public on-board, he said. 

“People are usually big on supporting bond issues for police and fire but they need to loop in dispatchers as well,” Piccioli said. “We’re part of that response too.” 

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Jerod MacDonald-Evoy
Jerod MacDonald-Evoy

Reporter Jerod MacDonald-Evoy joined the Arizona Mirror from the Arizona Republic, where he spent 4 years covering everything from dark money in politics to Catholic priest sexual abuse scandals. He brings strong watchdog sensibilities and creative storytelling skills to the Arizona Mirror.