Your Brain on Dispatch

Your Brain on Dispatch

Author's Note:  The terms "dispatch" and "dispatcher" are synonymous for all public safety telecommunicators, call takers and those who do a combination of those duties.  The stress response is applicable to all.

Why talk about your brain on dispatch?  Because, as former New York Times executive editor A.M. Rosenthal explains, "to neglect it is to indulge it."  The subject has been taboo for far too long.  Hardened and weathered dispatchers who have been doing this the longest will tell you to "suck it up, buttercup."  It has been the mentality in the 9-1-1 industry to dismiss the stress associated with the job as weakness.  Or, as one officer put it, "Why are you stressed?  You don't see or deal (with it) firsthand?"

Is this right?  Has this worked for you, your team or your agency?  Or has it caused high turnover, interpersonal and team conflict, and organizational decay?  And for those dispatcher who manage to make it a career, what degree of normalcy or good health are they experiencing?  For these reasons, and so many others, it is worth talking about stress and stress management.  But first we have to examine the brain on dispatch to fully understand what we are talking about.


In his books "On Killing" and "On Combat," Lt. Col. Dave Grossman has pioneered a new field in which he explores the psychology and physiology of combat and killing as they relate to the military, law enforcement and society.  In the acknowledgments of "On Combat" he states, "Men have been at war for millennia, but only =today have we discovered, or been willing to talk about, the reality of combat.  "We need to be willing to talk about the reality of dispatch and 9-1-1.

There are strong correlations between experiences of first responders in the field and the first of the first responders in the communications center.  As Grossman states, "Physiological arousal is physiological arousal."  Everyone's brain has evolved to function the same.  On a physiological level there is no difference between taking a high-risk call, being in the playoffs or having someone point a gun at you.  Technology and society have evolved faster than human biology.  Your brain doesn't discern a difference between the stress of a saber-toothed tiger threat and that of speaking in public; it is going to initiate survival mode first and ask questions later. 


The brain is a beautiful puzzle we are still putting together today.  What researchers do know is that the oldest part, known as the reptilian brain, is where most of the functions of the autonomic nervous system take place; the things you don't need to think about consciously, like breathing or regulating heart beats.  It is also where the autonomic nervous system breaks down further into the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, which have a yin and yang effect to balance your body.

The allocation of all available resources and energy in the body is the sympathetic nervous system's job.  It's the part that, when an officer keys up the mic with his sirens blaring, makes a dispatcher think "Oh no, its about to go down" and dumps a cocktail of adrenaline, cortisol, and other hormones into the bloodstream to get them ready to meet the challenge.  Most people know this as the fight, flight or freeze response to danger.  However, the reptilian part of the brain is going to initiate the stress response before the "thinking" part of the brain, or neocortex, engages. 

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