Answering the Call: Special team helps w/ trauma after 911 calls

By Mellany Armstrong 8:12am, December 11, 2013 - Updated 2:05pm, December 11, 2013
The people who field emergency calls can be in emotional turmoil after a highly stressful event like the shooting of a police officer or the death of a child.

WDEL's Mellany Armstrong reports on a special team that helps them deal with it in Part 3 of 'Answering the Call.'

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Emergency operators handle thousands of 911 calls each year. But who do these people call when THEY need help?

"There's gonna be that one incident that goes beyond a person's level of coping."

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The Critical Incident Stress Management Team, or CISM, was formed in Delaware in 1989 to help debrief police and other emergency responders after traumatic incidents. It's made up of 200 volunteers in the state.

"These are peers talking to other peers, basically normalizing their reactions, telling them that they are normal people with normal feelings reacting normally to a very abnormal event," he said.

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Dennis Carradin is the clinical director of the CISM team in Delaware.

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Team members meet once a month to discuss crises that have happened and the team's response. Carradin says it wasn't until relatively recently that CISM sessions have been offered to call takers.

"The past four to five years is when we've really started looking at dispatch, saying, these folks really need this help, too," Carradin said.

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Sergeant Harold Bozeman is a coordinator for CISM for Wilmington police officers.

"A little less than a year ago we had an officer that was shot on duty, and in talking to some of the dispatchers that were on that day, they were having a difficult time with that, so when we arranged our regular groups that we do for police officers, we also arranged for several groups for the dispatchers," he said.

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The sessions are not counseling sessions, but debriefings to alleviate stress, and to assess whether a person must be referred for more intensive treatment.

"And the reason it's successful is because it's peers, it's people that you can trust, it's people that you know can empathize with you and can relate to you," Bozeman said.

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Carradin says even though call-takers and dispatchers sit at a desk, they can experience post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms after a bad call.

"Here's that exposure, I got that first phone call, it's very raw, it's very emotional, and now I keep having thoughts when I'm leaving my shift, and I'm feeling something and I'm thinking something that I don't want to feel, and now I want to avoid that thought or feeling," Carradin said.

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Jayme Wright got help from CISM after she listened as Sergeant Joseph Szczerba was stabbed to death on duty. She now wants to be a team member.

"To get some kind of closure, and to hear that every officer, every EMS paramedic that was on scene felt the same way that I did, that they didn't do enough, that their hands were tied, that they couldn't help Joe, that made me feel some comfort," she said.

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Lorraine Williams is a member of the CISM team, and uses the techniques in her job as a New Castle County paramedic.

"My partner and I do it every day, after every call, we talk about the call so that we can put it away and move onto the next one. And there's been tears and there's been anger, and all those feelings and emotions that everybody else has. They come out, because that wall drops and then we slowly build the wall back up again, and that's how we keep going, day after day after day," she said.

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