NEGAUNEE TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WJMN) – When a person in a crisis makes a 911 call, we may not think about how taking those serious calls can affect the dispatchers on the other line.
“There are several people who think you’re just a call taker. But another I guess cliche quote I like is if you could see what I hear. The stuff that we hear is gutwrenching. We are the first line of defense, and ones that point everyone in the right direction, we’re the ones that are trying to get all of the information that we can,” said Kristie Buruse, Marquette County dispatcher/co-coordinator of Central UP CISM.
Emergency dispatchers are trained on how to handle the worst of situations.
Adam Holloway, a Michigan State Police emergency dispatcher, said, “Some of the things that we’ve actually done through our training is taking care of the caller. We know they are going through the absolute worst day of their life when they’re on the phone with us and we want to be the voice on the other line that helps them get through that day because we know after that day their lives have changed forever.”
But when your day job involves taking calls about car accidents, shootings, and other tragedies, it can have a serious toll on your mental health.
“We feel completely helpless because we don’t know what’s going on and unfortunately a lot of the time we don’t know the end result. We don’t know if we got help there in time, how bad is it? We helped them with CPR in progress, did we help them save their nine-month-old child? And that’s some of the things we have to live with, and we do what we can to find out what we can with that,” said Holloway. “On the flip side of that is one of the benefits is when you do help that nine-month-old child and you hear that child crying in the background and you know they’re breathing and you know that child is going to be ok, it’s the greatest feeling in the world.”
Holloway, like many other dispatchers, has ways to cope with the stress of the job.
“Just talking about it. That’s the first step with anything like that is that you don’t want any of that stuff bottle up and take it with you when you’re out of here. A lot of us have come up with different ways of coping/dealing/decompressing. Me, personally, I do a lot of biking, and then in the wintertime, I officiate junior hockey and just different things like that to help get your mind off of what happened with the call,” said Holloway.
Kristie Buruse has been a dispatcher for over 30 years and is set to retire later this year.
“There are not a lot of people that retire from dispatch due to the stress of the job and due to the fact that there’s not a lot of acknowledgment and you know that’s sad but it’s getting better.”
One way it’s getting better is through Critical Incident Stress Management, also known as CISM. Buruse is co-coordinator of the Central UP CISM Team.
“CISM started in the late 60s early 70s out in the east coast. What it became of was first responders did not have anything when we had a bad call there was nothing there to help them through. We were just told and you’ve heard it ‘man up’ ‘stay strong’ ‘you’re fine’, that wasn’t working. The suicide rates were skyrocketing and even now they’re still high, because of CISM a lot of agencies aren’t using it. It’s starting to get a lot better,” said Buruse.
“Our CISM team, the Central UP CISM team was started I believe in the early 90s. Myself and Susan Andary just took over as co-coordinators and we are doing more training, we’re getting more members and we’re just carrying on that legacy that our founders started.”
The team focuses on job retention and stress management for dispatchers, law enforcement, EMS, and other first responders in Marquette and Alger Counties.
“When we had a bad incident like we did what we’ll sometimes is immediately before anyone goes off shift we’ll go talk to the people who were actually involved, make sure they’re okay, give them a few pointers and tips that can help them get through the next couple of days. Then within three, four days we’ll have a debriefing,” explained Buruse. “Anybody who was there will hopefully join in that debriefing and we’ll talk about what happened. It’s not about what went wrong, it’s not about what went right, it’s about what’s going on in your mind. Letting people know what they’re experiencing pretty much no matter what it is normal and that they need to have self-care.”
Michigan State Police Trooper Thomas Kinnunen has seen the benefits of CISM after an emergency situation.
“There is a toll that first responders take of responding to these types of incidents or situations and it’s normal. CISM is here to help process and gives us tools to get back on track and go forward. It’s not an easy overnight kind of thing. It’s a process.”
While the job as a first responder isn’t easy, they want the public to know that they want you to make that call if you are struggling and will try their best to get the help you need.
“Mental health is very important. We gotta take care of ourselves and respect our limits and know our limits,” said Kinnunen.
If you or someone you know are struggling with mental health, there is help available. For a full list of resources by county in the Upper Peninsula, click here.