Preparing for Life After an Emergency Services Career
When I first started dispatching, supervisors and co-workers saw things in me that I didn’t see in myself. I had empathy. As my career grew, so did my passion for the job, and my empathy. I wanted to save lives, make a difference, ensure all of my coworkers went home safely at the end of every shift, learn all that I possibly could, and wanted all of my fellow dispatchers to share that same passion and empathy. I felt like the Grinch—when his heart grew three sizes that day. I gained enough empathy for everyone at my very large, Italian dinner table.
I was completely unprepared for all of the feelings that went along with the job. No one told me, or prepared me for 27 years of extreme feelings; feelings of euphoria, guilt, heartbreak, compassion, disgust, hatred, respect, fear, panic, hysteria, depression, excitability, pride, and irritation. Seriously, I had no problem feeling all of those, and more, within an eight-hour shift.
We work in an environment where we have to be emotionally strong, and have control of our emotions. If we admit we are having problems dealing with our emotions, we are labeled, talked about, considered weak, and it becomes hazardous for our careers.
I never admitted that I had a problem during that entire 27-year career, but I paid the price in my personal life. I’m still paying the price. PTSD is a real thing, people! I have nightmares, flashbacks, anxiety, and extreme protective responses to emergency personnel on the highway, after having one of my officers hit and critically injured while directing traffic on the highway, and losing two coworkers who were struck and killed while working an accident scene on the highway.
No one can prepare you for that. No one can prepare you for hearing “shots fired,” “I’m hit,” or hearing the panic, anguish, fear, hysteria and tears of family members and friends of one who didn’t make it. I have difficulty watching COPS, or Live. I realize that my hands are clenched and sweaty, and I’m holding my breath, multiple times per episode. Even my husband, a former corrections officer, doesn’t understand that response now.
If I had to do it over again, would I? It wasn’t 27-years of horrible things. I had so many good times, so many fantastic co-workers and friends, and so many wonderful memories to look back on. I would still do it all again in a heartbeat. I didn’t save them all, but I saved a lot. I didn’t talk them all off the ledge, but I tried. I didn’t save all of my coworkers, but if I could have taken their place, I surely would have. I didn’t get thanked very much (I got called names I’d never even heard of before lol), but appreciation from my officers meant the world to me.
Each and every one of us needs someone to talk to, someone who understands, someone who has been there, and someone who doesn’t have a vested interest in your professional or personal life. If you need to go outside of work to find professional help, please do so. If you are having suicidal thoughts, please get help immediately. I have, and will continue to offer my support to anyone who needs it.
We are a different breed of people. We laugh at things that disgust other people. We make inappropriate jokes about things that are completely shocking to other people. No one understands our coping mechanisms better than one of our own. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been on the job for six months, 30 years, or retired for 10 years … those of us who care, those of us who feel, those of us who empathize, are all one in the same. Don’t wait until your career is over before asking for help.
Lara – After growing up in my father’s Italian restaurant, I began a 27-year career as a police, fire and EMS dispatcher. Now living along the coast of North Carolina, I am enjoying writing, my pet sitting business, and being the executive director of our local merchant association. I will always advocate for dispatcher recognition, the acknowledgement of mental stress on dispatchers, and all first responders.