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The Trauma of Being a 911 Operator

Apr 29, 2019 | 831 videos
Video by Elivia Shaw and Paloma Martinez

“Do you see flames or smoke or both?”

“Do you know what she took? Is she breathing?”

“I just want you to take a deep breath. You’re pretty hysterical. Ma’am, why are you screaming?”

These are just a few of the high-stakes situations that 911 operators faced over the course of a single night at the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management. In the riveting short documentary The Shift, the filmmakers Elivia Shaw and Paloma Martinez take us behind the scenes of 911 calls, revealing the intense demands of the job and the concomitant stress that plagues many emergency dispatchers.

“Many suffer from secondhand trauma,” Shaw told me. “A huge number leave after a few months—if they make it through the training at all.”

Operators are tasked with performing the first line of triage in emergency situations. From the morass and panic of an emergency call, they must identify the most imminent threat and gather information as quickly as possible for the authorities. In the film, one dispatcher describes how she visualizes the often harrowing scenes at the other end of the line in order to best navigate each call.

Specific calls can haunt dispatchers for years, Martinez told me, sometimes because operators feel a connection with the person in trouble, or because no closure is provided following the incident.

“When we get off the phone, I hopefully will never give you another thought,” says a dispatcher in the film. “I just can’t.”

Both Martinez and Shaw drew attention to a bipartisan bill in Congress, the 911 SAVES Act. If passed, it would reclassify 911 dispatchers from clerical workers to “protective service” workers—a category that also includes police officers and firefighters. Shaw said the bill could create opportunities for increased funding and training. “There are over 100,000 911 dispatchers working around the country who could benefit from this reclassification. We saw firsthand how integral they are to handling any kind of emergency, often performing lifesaving measures over the phone.”

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Author: Emily Buder

About This Series

A showcase of cinematic short documentary films, curated by The Atlantic.