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Why Are Half of Chicago’s 911 Operators Absent from Work?

The position is more stressful than people assume, and 911 call takers don’t get the same support as other emergency personnel.

Alicia Tate-Nadeau, Chicago’s head of OEMC, greets operators at the 911 call center after taking her position in March.   Photo: Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune

A whopping 49 percent of the city’s 911 call takers are absent on any given day, the head of Chicago’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications announced this week, leaving the rest of the operators overrun with overtime responsibilities.

Alicia Tate-Nadeau, who took the helm of OEMC this spring, estimates that on average 44 dispatchers call off work each day under the Family and Medical Leave Act, which allows for unpaid time off.

So what does it say about the nature of dispatcher jobs that nearly half the employees are reluctant to come to work (and willing to give up their pay) on any given day?

Industry advocates have been seeking to draw attention to the profession, which researchers say can be just as stressful as other emergency personnel (police, fire, paramedics) but rarely gets the same attention. Jim Marshall, director of the 911 Wellness Foundation, says that many 911 dispatchers spend their careers trying to “somehow regain balance socially, emotionally and relationally,” and that at times “it feels important to step away from the job to do that.”

Marshall says it’s possible that a significant percentage of FMLA leave is for personal time to cope with the emotional labor inherent in the job. (The act allows employees to take up to 12 weeks off for a family medical emergency, pregnancy, or a health condition that impedes the employee’s job performance.)

Earlier this year, I interviewed Eugenia Legg, a 911 dispatcher for 19 years in Chicago, who says she sought mental health counseling for exactly that reason. She cites, among other concerns, the constant tension of the work and lack of closure on calls—though she might develop an emotional connection while talking someone through a crisis on the phone, she rarely finds out what happens in the end.

The research shows that 911 dispatchers are often exposed to levels above that of first-responders who may be rushing to the scene of an accident, rather than just interacting with the situation on the phone. A 2012 study in the Journal of Traumatic Stress found that 911 telecommunicators had higher rates of peritraumatic stress, the level prior to PTSD, than police officers.

This is coupled with minimal employer support, says Legg. OEMC offers a peer-to-peer network a voluntary mental-health support program, but no formal counseling like the type provided for police officers, for instance.

Paul Linee, an expert on 911 management, says that employee retention was one of the biggest challenges of his job. “I fought this issue all the time while I ran the 911 dispatch center in Minneapolis. I’d take people to a Twins game, to a picnic, have newsletters and committees to get people involved.” But, he found, the answer wasn’t quite so easy. “If some employees are doing things, someone else has to fill in on overtime. It’s an extremely challenging prospect to create happy, productive, collegial and collaborative employees in that environment.”

The performance of OEMC employees came under scrutiny in February this year, when two dispatchers were suspended for their controversial handling of 911 phone calls that eventually ended in police shooting and killing Quintonio LeGrier and his neighbor Bettie Jones.

Tate-Nadeau, for her part, said a recent survey of employees pointed at “poor” morale in an “incredibly stressful” job.

As the city works to find a long-term solution, the impacts is already being felt by Chicagoans reaching out to emergency services. The Sun-Times reported that the rate at which 911 calls were answered had already begun to fall—in a one-hour period on a busy day, call rates went from 95 percent of calls answered in three rings, to 56 percent. 

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