The Invisible First Responders

Brooklyn Mundo ’13 studies the psychological impact of working as a 911 operator.

(Photo by Scott Cook) (Photo by Scott Cook) Brooklyn Mundo ’13 picks up a call inside the Seminole County Emergency Communications Center. Huddled inside the bathroom of a Casselberry hair salon, a woman sobs while telling Mundo that a man has shot four women and then driven away. Mundo focuses on dispatching police and medical, while helping the caller. After a few minutes, the police arrive. Mundo sets down her headset, walks outside, covers her face with her hands, and cries. And, as if nothing had happened, she returns to her desk to take the next call.

This was last October. Mundo would later find out that three of the women died and the shooter took his own life.

We don’t often consider that behind every shooting, car accident, bank robbery, and kidnapping is the story of the 911 operator who is, in essence, the first responder on the scene. Considered even less is the psychological impact of this job.

That’s something Mundo, a psychology major in the Hamilton Holt School, found extraordinarily surprising. Mundo spent the last three and a half years working 32 hours a week at the Seminole County Emergency Communications Center in Sanford. But unlike her coworkers who simply live through the stress and distress of dealing with emergency situations, Mundo has been able to apply an introspective analysis of her experience that’s been informed by her psychology classes.

“To some extent, there is hardening of the heart with this job; you cope by becoming desensitized,” Mundo says. “But your job is to sympathize with these people on the phone. In my psychology classes I learned it was called emotional labor.”

As the years passed, Mundo began to feel the impact of this emotional labor, citing not only weight gain but also panic attacks and paranoia. “When you do this job, you work in a constant state of crisis and it becomes difficult to leave that behind at the call center. I could no longer watch movies with action sequences because they would remind me of real events. I felt fearful in my everyday life.”

Mundo was able to learn about and discuss this experience at school, something she found both enlightening and comforting. “As a 911 operator, you’re expected to be there for people,” says Mundo, who took about 60 calls per shift. “You have empathy but you develop these coping mechanisms for self-preservation, a form of detached empathy that makes it difficult to experience real empathy in your life outside of work. It definitely affected my relationships. But I was aware that this was happening because of what I am learning at Rollins.”

As she headed into her final semester, Mundo proposed an independent research project which would give her the opportunity to do some research on how 911 operators were coping with the stress of the job. A preliminary search of existing research on the topic turned up just three papers. “There has been a lot of research on police officers, but almost none on emergency communications officers,” Mundo says. “So I wanted to do a study comparing data on police officers with data I’d collect on 911 operators. My hunch was that it would reveal similar stress levels.”

Mundo’s faculty advisor on the project, Professor of Psychology John Houston, was both surprised and intrigued by the ambitious nature of the research. “Brooklyn’s unique background as a 911 operator and as a psychology major gives her a special perspective on how a group like this doesn’t face physical danger but experiences vicarious stress,” he says. “She was able to get access to this group of operators who agreed to take her online survey in their free time.”

Mundo’s survey, which was similar to those given to police officers in previous research studies, looked at stress, distress, and personality factors related to coping with the job. Her hypothesis was that she would see similar high levels of anxiety and depression. With a response rate of 68 percent, Mundo and a few of her classmates were able to analyze a wealth of data, which formed the basis of Mundo’s paper. “I’m still going through the data, but I can say that there has not been a statistically significant difference between the data collected on police officers and the data collected on these 911 operators. They are both experiencing similar levels of stress.”

Mundo’s hope is that by demonstrating that 911 operators face near or similar levels of stress as police officers, they would be considered in high-risk jobs and therefore be eligible for similar benefits, such as access to counseling and time off for psychological reasons. “I think I also want people to recognize that 911 operators and dispatchers are the first responders to emergencies but no one thinks about them.”

Last month, Mundo took a new job as a career development center specialist at Seminole State College. It was a welcome change for the graduating Holt student who will be getting married this October. In the meantime, Mundo and Houston are submitting their paper for conferences and publication. “I have high hopes,” Houston says. “This is very promising research.”

Mundo, however, is just as excited about presenting the paper to the Sheriff’s Office. “I didn’t do this to get a grade; I did this because I really believe this research needed to be done,” says Mundo, who has inadvertently become a natural advocate for 911 operators. “These people need a voice; no one is going to bat for them. I want to help society appreciate what they do for us.”