New Hanover County 911 center puts a focus on mental health for first responders

NHC 911 telecommunicator Kayleigh Green.
NHC 911 telecommunicator Kayleigh Green.(WECT)
Published: Sep. 29, 2023 at 6:47 PM EDT
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - Working in emergency services isn’t an easy job, even for a 911 dispatcher who might be on the phone talking someone through performing CPR—or a violent domestic dispute.

“You never know what phone call you’re going to get,” Kayleigh Green, a New Hanover County 911 telecommunicator, said.

And many times—those telecommunicators don’t know the outcome of that situation.

It’s traumatic calls like that, that Green says sticks with you.

She’s worked in the New Hanover County 911 center as a telecommunicator for 8 years now and she says the job started to take a toll on her.

“I was extremely burnt out,” Green said. “And it was starting to affect my physical health and my family. But finding programs, finding other people like minded individuals and being part of something bigger has made me fall in love with the job again.”

Hope Downs—the director of the 911 center says taking care of her team and their mental health is equally as important as those dispatchers helping our community.

“We’ve done little things like putting gaming machines in the break rooms or in the privacy rooms. Oxford university did a study years ago on first responders, which included telecommunicators and found that after an incident, if sometimes, afterwards, if you go and play textures, you’re less likely to recall the traumatic events,” Downs said.

Those rooms have gaming machines like Pacman and Tetris.

“We’ve worked really hard with HR to implement a first responder program for our EAP program, to give them additional resources where when they do reach out and need counseling, it is someone who has some background in emergency services, which makes a difference because not everybody in the public can really understand what they go through. You can try to explain it but the end of the day until you’ve sat in that seat, you really don’t understand,” Downs added.

Something that might seem like a small change—but Green says makes a big difference.

“And those are really helpful after stressful incidents to be able to use our hands and get our minds off the things the game specifically because you’re so focused on that, that your mind can take a relaxed, relaxing break from what they were going through.”

A bigger focus on mental health for first responders so they can better help you in an emergency. Now, they’re working on expanding their team.

“New Hanover County they have been trailblazing in mental health,” Green said. “So, we recently started a program, and we now have a licensed clinical mental health clinician supervisor that sits in with us most days. She’s very cognitive of what’s going on in the room. And if we have bad calls, she makes sure that we’re taken care of. It’s kind of a twofold thing because she and her team that’s still being established, they’ll be here for the community as well, and callers in crisis. If we feel that they need to speak to somebody that may be a little bit more knowledgeable, we can transfer them over to them eventually, to be able to get that further level of care until somebody can get there because even our first responders in the field are not mental health clinicians and may not have the knowledge that that person needs right then.”

“It really is a team effort. And so, they have to be able to work together to get through the day and it’s not always just taking the calls. It’s just checking in on one another,” Downs said.

And Green knows how important that can be.

“There are sometimes after you’ve taken back to that traumatic phone calls, that you just need a minute to recover,” Green said.

Telecommunicators typically work 12-hour shifts and get three 20 minute breaks during a shift. Sometimes, taking a break to use one of the break rooms can depend on call volume.

Downs said they’re also working on adjusting employees’ schedules to make sure they have flexibility to work hours that are best for them and their family. For example, they’re making a weekends only schedule a possibility.