In October 2012, a 23-year-old college student answered a call and listened as a woman began screaming “she’s dead.” In the background, a young girl was shrieking “Help! Mommy!” Four women had been just been shot. One was pregnant.
At night and on weekends, Brooklyn Stabile was a part-time 911 operator. During the day, she was a psychology major at Rollins College.
“When I was growing up, I wanted to be a counselor,” said Stabile.
Although her mother had been a police officer, Stabile didn’t dream of someday becoming a first responder herself.
“I wasn’t planning on being there long term,” said Stabile. “It was meant to be a stepping stone to help me get some practical skills that would be transferable to counseling.”
The job fit well with her schedule and gave her a unique insight into the situations she had only read about in textbooks.
She quickly discovered why 911 operators have such a high turnover rate.
When first responders are discussed, many people think about firefighters and police officers. The men and women that physically show up on the scene of an incident before anyone else. Most people don’t put 911 operators into that category.
Four years ago, Stabile sat at her desk in front of computer screens that had helped her save countless lives.
She answered a call that came from a woman hiding under a table inside Dominicana Hair Salon in Casselberry, Florida.
A man had just walked in and shot four women.
“When people are in emergencies, they aren’t thinking clearly,” said Stabile. “They’re counting on you to navigate that situation for them.”
The standard for Florida is 10 seconds. When a 911 operator is dealing with an urgent situation, they need to gather all the information needed to dispatch help to that call in 10 seconds.
Stabile got as much information as she could and then hung up. She didn’t have time to cry. She didn’t have time to take a break. She still had a job to do. She needed to locate the man. She had gotten his name from the distraught woman and now had his driver’s license and police records sitting in front of her.
She tried to connect the dots, find out where he would go next. Would he try to kill someone else or would he try to find someone to hide him?
She was too late.
The operator sitting next to her took the call.
Bradford Baument, 36, had walked into his friend’s home and shot himself.
Stabile walked outside and cried. She allowed herself to deal with the surge of emotions she had just experienced. This lasted for only a moment before she went back inside and took more calls.
Stabile realized that her part-time job was taking more out of her than she was willing to let go of. She had become desensitized to so many things, she could no longer feel sympathy for the everyday issues her friends and family faced.
“911 operators have an empathy muscle that they have to use on the job all the time,” said Stabile. “It can get tired and it can be strained.”
Stabile believes one way to improve mental health throughout dispatch centers, would be to implement mandatory debriefing while hiring individuals that are solely there to support operators.
Police and fire stations often have religious figures available for workers to speak to, so Stabile wondered why therapists were not more readily available when the help they could provide would be so vital.
Stabile got engaged a few months before her college graduation. After having a panic attack while watching the movie “Conspiracy Theory” with her fiancé, she decided she could no longer leave work at work. She felt herself suffering from the symptoms she would read about in her textbooks and knew she would not be able to provide love and warmth to her future husband while working as an operator.
Some say there is a hero complex surrounding first responders that can be detrimental to the mental health of the men and women in these fields.
“By needing to be rescued,” Stabile said. “It can be interpreted as ‘you don’t have what it takes to do the job.’”
Stabile highlighted an issue not often talked about: while a police officer may respond to eight calls during his or her shift, a 911 operator could have 80 to 100 calls during the same period of time.
However, there is no way to quantify this exposure to trauma. There is no way to tell how many times an operator must hear a suicide before it equals the effects a police officer suffers after seeing one.
While Florida is working towards providing paid leave for first responders suffering from PTSD, 911 operators will not be included in the bill.
“Being a 911 operator is like having a live action novel that you’re reading, but the last two chapters are ripped out,” Stabile said. “You never know the ending of the story.”
INSIDE A DISPATCH CENTER:
Stabile worked in a 911 operating center for more than three years. Step inside the Brevard County Dispatch Center with this 360˚ video.