Category: The Effects of Being a 911 Dispatcher

Sleep Deprivation

Sleep deprivation is a common occurrence in this profession.  Combine long hours (8-14) with forced or voluntary overtime due to sick calls and vacation days and working several days (sometimes up to 7) in a row, it’s a disaster waiting to happen.  We have all come into work bleary eyed with dark circles under our eyes, gulping down various sorts of caffeine in an effort to force our eyelids open.  According to WebMD, ( the following are 10 side effects of sleep deprivation

  • Sleepiness causes accidents
  • Sleep loss dumbs you down
  • Sleep deprivation can lead to serious health problems
  • Lack of sleep kills sex drive
  • Sleepiness is depressing
  • Lack of sleep ages your skin
  • Sleepiness makes you forgetful
  • Losing sleep can make you gain weight
  • Lack of sleep may increase risk of death
  • Sleep loss impairs judgment, especially about sleep

 I have had my own issues with sleep deprivation and can relate to several side effects listed above.  The following is what happened at my worst ~ my most exhausted moment during my dispatching career.

 I was married with a 5-year-old and a 2-year-old when I first started my job at Bloomington Police Department.  My husband worked daytime hours and I was stuck on dogwatch due to lack of seniority.  One major change in the cost of living from Indiana to Minnesota was the cost of child care.  I think I paid $100 per week for two kids in Indiana and it was $300-$400 per week in Minnesota.  Needless to say, we really couldn’t afford child care.  So…  I came up with the brilliant idea of staying up during the day with both kids and sleeping for a few hours when my husband came home.  I did that for years.  Once both of my kids were school age, it was much easier because I could sleep during the day.  When Taylor, my daughter was in kindergarten (half day during the morning), I was separated from my husband.  I would arrive home from dogwatch at 0730hrs and sleep until she got home around noon.  Austin, my son, was in 2nd grade by then and at school the entire day.  My husband and I lived in separate apartments in the same complex during part of our separation.  My goal was to wake up before the bus came to drop Taylor off and I would meet her at the bus stop and bring her home.  Keep in mind that my doorbell at my apartment did not work.  I thought this was a great thing at the time.  Trying to sleep during the day and waking up to solicitors ringing the doorbell is not fun.

 After three years (at this point) of working dogwatch and trying to save money on child care by staying up during the day, I managed to get about 3-4 hours of sleep.  Sometimes only two hours.  I was exhausted.  I was living in a fog.  My coworkers told me time and time again I needed to get more sleep.  I pushed their concerns aside, put on my Superwoman cape and plodded down the path I was on.  I thought at the time I was just fine.  I considered my lack of sleep as a sacrifice I was making for my family.  Sure I was tired, but weren’t we all tired with the long hours and the hectic schedule???  I would survive through this!  This isn’t a big deal.  Other people are in worse situations than I am.  I’ve got this!  No problem!  Oh, how wrong I was…

 My coworkers love this story because I made an absolute fool out of myself.  I think they were only disappointed that they weren’t there to see it. 

Taylor Kindergarten 2

If my memory serves me right, it was the first day of kindergarten or at least the first week.  Taylor was adorable as a 5-year-old.  She was bright and spunky and ready to go to school like her big brother!  We got her on the bus with her backpack, name tag, and emergency notification card (in case she got lost).  I was excited for her to start her school career, and even more excited to get a few hours of sleep while she was gone!  I went to bed, set my alarm for noon and fell into an exhausted sleep for a few short hours.  I woke up to a message being left on my answering machine.  In my sleep deprived stupor, I heard a message from an “Officer Sanchez” with Washington County Sheriff’s Department telling me that my daughter had been taken to St Joseph’s Home for Children.  I looked at the time and it was 1:00pm.  AN HOUR PAST THE TIME TAYLOR WAS SUPPOSED TO BE HOME FROM SCHOOL.  I completely FREAKED out.  I had visions of my baby girl finding her way home alone, knocking on the door and ringing the doorbell that didn’t work trying to wake me up to let her in.  I pictured her alone, tears streaming down her sweet face, not knowing what to do.  I tried to play the message again to hear a phone number I could call as I was frantically searching the phone book for the Washington County non-emergency number.  I was in such a panic that I quickly gave up and called 911.  I wish I had a recording of that phone call because I was babbling like an idiot.  The dispatcher who answered was extremely kind and patient with me.  I explained, words flying out of my mouth at a speed that I’m sure was incomprehensible, that I had overslept and was not there to get my child from the bus stop and my doorbell didn’t work and I had received a phone message from Officer Sanchez that she had taken Taylor to St Joe’s because no one could find me.  She told me that their department did not have an Officer Sanchez and asked if I was sure that was the correct name.  She didn’t see any calls within the past few hours involving a 5-year-old child that was left abandoned at the bus stop.  In the midst of my meltdown, the dispatcher told me to take a deep breath and told me to play the message again.  With the dispatcher on the phone, I played the message so both she and I could hear it.  I was MORTIFIED.  It was not a call from an Officer Sanchez.  It was a call from the secretary of another school telling me that Taylor was just fine and was in their office eating lunch; she had not gotten off the bus at the right stop and the bus driver had brought her to this school because he had to pick up kids there to take home.  Oh.  My.  God.

 I breathed in huge gulps of air (I was nearly hyperventilating), wiped the tears streaming down my face and felt an enormous wave of relief.  I was so relieved that no one had taken my child to St Joe’s and that she was safe and sound at a school just down the road from where I lived.  The dispatcher gently told me that everything was just fine, Taylor was safe and sound and she was glad everything turned out okay.  She kindly suggested that I take a few minutes to pull myself together prior to retrieving my daughter.  Remember that list of the side effects of sleep deprivation ~ yes, the one about sleep loss dumbing you down???  Yep, that was me.  Somehow, in my sleep deprived mind, I heard that message say what I feared the most.  As a dispatcher, when we need to find a safe place for children and there isn’t a relative to release them to, we take them to St Joe’s.  St Joe’s is a wonderful place full of compassionate staff members and they do wonderful things there for children going through a rough time.  As wonderful as this place is, it is no place for any child of mine. 

 When I walked into the school office, my daughter was sitting happily in a chair coloring.  The office girls had taken wonderful care of her.  They had made sure she was given lunch, that she was content and reassured that I was coming to get her.  As I hugged her close to me, breathing her in, I thanked God that she was safe and sound.  It was this incident that finally convinced me I could not go on with such little sleep.  I was out of my mind in a state of delirium because I was so exhausted.  Taylor survived the ordeal and really didn’t seem to bat an eye at what happened.  She told me she didn’t get off the bus when she was supposed to and the bus driver took her to the school down the road because he was picking up some other kids there.  Taylor has always been resilient, even at 5 years old.  I was proud of her for being so brave and not being a messy puddle of tears (like her mother) when I picked her up

My coworkers literally howled with laughter when I told them my story the next day.  I received several “I told you so” comments in regard to my constant exhaustion.  I am glad that this was the worst thing that happened to me in my sleep deprived state.  I’m grateful I didn’t fall asleep driving on the way home and crash into another vehicle.  Sleepy drivers can be terrifying on the road.  If you find that you are pushing yourself way beyond your limits and you are at the extreme limits of sleep deprivation, I am begging you to take a moment to reevaluate your situation.  Are you depriving yourself of sleep out of necessity?  Is it worth falling asleep on the drive home and crashing into another vehicle ~ possibly killing the occupants ~ possibly killing yourself?  As dispatchers, we advocate safety to everyone.  We ask our officers, firefighters, and paramedics to stay safe.  We ask our family, friends and loved ones to stay safe.  We give life-saving instructions to our 911 callers to keep them safe.  We need to take our own advice and keep ourselves safe.  Getting enough sleep is a part of that!


Attitude can make you or break you in this profession.  Dispatchers deal with a wide variety of calls on a daily basis.  It is an emotional roller coaster at times.  Sometimes it is difficult to keep a positive attitude when dealing with so many irate people.  I haven’t always had the best attitude in the dispatch center.  There are days when it is really difficult not to speak to people with an angry tone in my voice.  I think when I was younger I was more susceptible to letting this job drag me down.  It took me a while to learn that I can get more information from a disgruntled caller by being sympathetic to their needs.  If I’m just as angry as they are on the phone it takes much longer to complete the call.  It also took me a long time to realize it isn’t my place to judge people.  Everyone is struggling with something. 

When I first started in this profession, society as a whole seemed to be a little more self sufficient.  The majority of people that called 911 truly had an emergency.  It was a simpler time.  In today’s world, people call 911 for everything from a barking dog to their order being wrong at the McDonald’s drive thru.  It’s difficult not to get frustrated.  When I was a child, I was out the door at sunrise and didn’t get home until sunset.  My parents never knew where I was.  I rode my bike everywhere going from one friend’s house to the next.  My parents didn’t fear for my safety.  They knew all my friends and their parents.  They knew the neighborhood.  I grew up with the freedom to explore my world.  My children didn’t have that opportunity.  Admittedly, as a parent, I feared for their safety every time they walked out of my house.  Working in the nerve center of the police department made me an extremely overprotective parent.  Fears of them being abducted by a stranger terrified me.  If my kids wanted to go to a friend’s house, I drove them there.  They didn’t have the freedom to roam – even in their own neighborhood.  I wish they could have had the childhood I did.

 Things are different in today’s world.  Society has changed and I can’t say for the better.  People no longer talk to their neighbors or even know them at all.  People are often afraid to speak to their neighbors about loud music or even a barking dog.  To be honest, I think it’s sad.  People call the police for everything and often tie up 911 lines for things that don’t qualify as an emergency.  Cell phones fall into their own category of nightmare for dispatchers.  911 lines are constantly tied up with pocket dials.  Our agency has a policy that requires us to call each and every one back to make sure no one needs help.  The amount of time I spend a day on cell phone hang-ups is ridiculous.  It creates a lot of frustration in the dispatch center.  It’s easy to have a bad attitude in that type of atmosphere. 

 Every dispatch center has at least one Negative Nellie or Bitter Betty.  It’s difficult to work with people like that and listen to them for an entire shift each day.  There are dispatchers I can’t stand to work with just because they suck the life right out of the room.  They treat people horribly on the phone and I have a real problem with that.  More often than not, we are the first point of contact for citizens calling the police department whether it is a 911 line or administrative line.  If those dispatchers had a family member that called their police department for help, would they want them treated that way?  I would hope not.  The way I see it, you are responsible for the energy you bring into the room.  This job is difficult enough without having to work with someone with a foul attitude.  Dispatch centers are notorious for low morale.  Bad attitudes are a large part of the problem.  That being said, a bad attitude is often difficult to improve if you work in a center where you are underpaid, unappreciated, understaffed, required to work mandatory overtime, and have no one fighting to make things better for you.  I am lucky to work for a really great department.  Our pay is decent and although we are understaffed at the moment, most of us are overtime hounds (myself included) and don’t mind picking up the extra hours.  We do have our own issues in the dispatch center, but the majority of the time, it is a great place to work.  I sympathize with those dispatchers who aren’t as lucky.

 So what can you do to improve your attitude?  Make a choice.  You can choose to see everything in a negative light, speak to callers in an angry, patronizing voice and make everyone around you miserable.  OR, you can search for the good in everything; refuse to let life and the work that you do drag you down into the depths of misery.   Make a choice to be kind and courteous to callers and make a positive contribution to your dispatch center.  If you love your job, but hate where you work, find it within yourself to do your job to the best of your ability anyway.  The citizens and your officers, firefighters and paramedics deserve the best you have to offer.  EVERY SINGLE DAY.  If you can’t commit to that – get out and find something that makes you happy where you can make a sincere contribution to society.  This job isn’t for everyone.  Most dispatchers I know love their job, but hate the place they work or hate their coworkers.  Every dispatch center has its problems.  You have to take the good with the bad.  Whatever your choice is, be aware of the energy you bring into the dispatch center.  If you truly hate your job, you’re doing a disservice to everyone around you that depends on you.  I have seen dispatchers that are so miserable when they walk in the door that they fail to pay attention and focus on their job, putting the lives of citizens and officers at risk.  They have no business being in this profession.  That’s just the way I feel about it. 

 If you choose to become a 911 dispatcher, I wish you the best of luck.  If you can get through the training process and you have what it takes, you will find that even though the job is difficult at times it is very rewarding on many levels.  I believe 911 Dispatchers are an elite force.  My coworkers, officers, firefighters are my family.  While everyone has a bad day every once in a while, make it a point to not bring that negativity into the dispatch center.  Do what you can to improve your dispatch center.  The best way to improve morale is to lead by example.

It goes without saying that working as a 911 dispatcher has affected several areas of my life.  I expected the odd work and sleep hours, the missed holidays with family and the mental exhaustion.   I did not expect to become so emotionally numb to tragedy that I cannot grieve the loss of my own father.   Recently, my mother and I started attending a grief support group.  My father passed away in November of 2012 from stage four brain cancer.   I signed up for the group with the intention of supporting my mother and hoping to figure out why I was having such a difficult time allowing myself to grieve the death of my father.   I can honestly feel myself purposely avoiding thinking about it at all.   I had some suspicion that my job may have something to do with my grieving process, but I was amazed at how much it has truly affected my ability (or lack thereof) to grieve.  While I am not a big fan of group therapy, it has been a good experience.  Grieving, I have learned, is an individual and deeply personal experience.  Grieving the loss of a father is very different from grieving the loss of a spouse.  My mother and I are grieving very differently.  My parents had been married for fifty years.  I cannot imagine how difficult this journey is for my mother.  It breaks my heart that I cannot make it easier for her.  It is a road she must travel alone.  I can be there to support her, but what works for me may not work for her and I need to be patient with that.  There is no right or wrong way to grieve. 

In the eight months since my dad passed away, I have broken down a few times.  It doesn’t happen often, but when it does it consumes me.  More often than not, I try to avoid thinking about it for fear of losing control.  Dispatchers by nature are control freaks.  Losing control kind of terrifies me.   The sadness tends to hit me out of the blue when I’m least expecting it.  If I had to visualize it, it would be a big wave crashing onto the shore.  It is overwhelming and knocks me off my feet.  It feels like a riptide that tries to pull me into a dark ocean of sorrow.  I wasn’t ready for my dad to go.  I had sixteen months to prepare for it, but I wasn’t ready.  I have found myself battling to stay on the shore.  There are times when I want to dive into that sorrow, but I fear I might drown and never surface.  What if I dive in, lose myself in grief and can’t come back up for air?  Would I be able to perform my job to the best of my ability by allowing myself to really feel the loss of my father?  I’m not sure I would.  So I stand on the shore and look at that endless ocean and the waves that threaten to pull me under.  Part of me wants to dive in and lose myself in the grief that beckons me, knowing I need to feel that sorrow in order to get past it.  The other part of me fights to stand my ground on the shore because people count on me to be that rock that they so dearly need in their time of crisis.  I don’t know how to grieve and still be strong.  The fear of letting go and really grieving for the loss of my father scares me. 

During the first grief support group meeting, as I listened to the others give a brief summary of what brought them there, I heard many stories of heartache and loss.  A lot of deaths caused by cancer (my father included), vehicle accidents, children taken way too young, suicide and even murder.  My heart broke for each and every person in that room.  As I started talking about my father, a few tears managed to escape.  I was grateful for the abundance of Kleenex in the room.  I found myself not only thinking of my father, but thinking of many of the callers I have had over the years that called 911 to report a death.   I didn’t tell the group about those thoughts, but they were there.   I thought of the mothers I have spoken to that have dialed 911 when they found their children who committed suicide.  I thought of the children who have called trying to save their parents who decided life was too difficult to live.  I thought of the husbands and wives that have called when their spouse who was so ill finally stopped breathing.  I thought of the woman that went looking for her husband when he didn’t come home from his daily run and found him dead on the running trail with the family dog that wouldn’t leave his side.  I thought of the mother who came home to find her baby boy murdered by the father that was supposed to love him.  I thought of all those people, both the deceased and the survivors and grieved for them too.  Honestly, it felt overwhelming.  I felt guilty for not being able to only think of my father.   Did that mean I didn’t love him enough?  All of those other people were strangers to me.  How could they have such a strong hold on my heart?   It is a rare occasion that I can put a face to a name when I answer a 911 line, but I still carry those callers in my heart.  I hear their voices in my head.  They are a part of me, but I never allowed myself to really feel their grief.  I listened to their cries and their pleas for help, their anger and shock and disbelief at the situation, but I never allowed myself to bring them or those feelings to the surface.  I forced myself tuck them safely in the back of my mind and I moved on to the next call.   Not only was I grieving for my father, but for all those calls I have taken over the years.   I know in my heart that it doesn’t mean I didn’t love my father enough.  My dad was my biggest fan.  I miss him so much I wonder if this ache will ever subside.  It’s difficult to keep a positive attitude when I feel so sad inside.

 It takes a certain type of person to handle what we go through on a daily basis in the 911 center.     Avoidance is my coping mechanism that allows me to do this job.  Surely, I can’t be the only dispatcher alive that uses this mechanism.    Dispatchers are often an outlet for the public.  There isn’t a dispatcher out there who hasn’t been screamed at and called a variety of inappropriate names by a multitude of callers.  We are the first contact during a crisis and people handle stress in very different ways.  We often take the brunt of the verbal assault.  To do this job, you cannot take it personally.  You have to blow it off.  You can’t do this job (and do it well) if you break down  and cry every time someone yells at you whether it’s a citizen, officer, fire chief or sergeant.  You have to have incredibly thick skin.  That being said, as dispatchers, we tend to become a bit callous.  We use humor to deal with the seriousness of the situation.   It’s a way to survive this job.  I have become numb to a lot of things.  I find that I have to be.  I wouldn’t be able to do my job effectively if I really allowed myself to “feel” the anger, sadness and sometimes helplessness that come with the territory of being a dispatcher.  Although I can’t speak for other dispatchers, I know that it takes quite a bit to get me upset in my life outside of work.  I tend to not understand people who “sweat the small stuff.”  If it isn’t life threatening, I really just don’t see the point in worrying about it.  My children know they have to be on fire or bleeding to really get my attention at times. (They might argue that leaving a mess in the kitchen or their rooms gets them  plenty of  attention.)   I know this has been difficult for them.  As a parent, we are often told by our kids (especially teenagers) that we “just don’t understand.”  I do understand, but if the situation doesn’t involve a dismemberment or loss of life, I really don’t lose any sleep over it.  It is what it is, so to speak.  Move on.  Believe me when I say that I haven’t always been this way.  It has taken many years to get to this mindset I have – good or bad.  Perhaps it is a mixture of the effects of my job as well as a bit of wisdom that comes with age.  I can tell you that I am much happier now not worrying about the little things in life than I was twenty years ago when I worried about everything.  Life just doesn’t have to be that difficult.  Life is too short to not enjoy it. 

So currently, I am taking it one day at a time.  I miss my father more than words can say.  I am hopeful that time will make things easier and the ache of his loss won’t feel so sharp.  Those who have traveled this path before me have told me that time heals.  I will figure out a way to allow myself to grieve this loss because I know I need to in order to heal.  I will do my best to comfort and support my mother, my siblings and my own children who are feeling the loss just as deeply as I am.  I will keep a positive attitude because life is more good than bad.  I was blessed to have my dad for nearly 40 years of my life.  He is gone but not forgotten.  God will see me through this and I know my father is in a better place. 

I am including a link to a song that has helped me for reasons I can’t begin to explain.  A woman with an extraordinary voice sang this during a “Blue Christmas” service for people who were grieving during the holidays last year.  It is a beautiful song.

 Below is the link for the grief support group I found.  The workbook is extremely helpful and they have support groups in the United States, Canada and Internationally.

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