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Calls to dispatchers up 60 percent

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The voice of the caller to the emergency call is nearly incoherent from grief. Words, interrupted by heaving sobs, do not come easily for her.

Slowly, the emergency dispatcher eases details out of her.

“911, what is your emergency,” the dispatcher calmly asks. “Ma’am, ma’am, I can’t understand you, what is your address? ... What is the problem? What is going on?”

Two parents shout and cry over the phone, giving scattered details. After a few more moments, the pieces of the puzzle become clear: A teenager has committed suicide overnight, and the parents have found the body.

The mother hands the phone to the child’s father. He sounds numb and repeats everything two or three times: They have been trying to perform CPR. They provide their address — the location of the body.

Calmly, the dispatcher sends rescue workers to the scene on the west side of Columbus, while talking the desperate parents through the steps of the resuscitation technique.

The December phone call is just one of many. Local dispatchers and emergency workers have handled hundreds of similar calls in recent years, where people either committed suicide or were planning to harm themselves. But, Bartholomew County saw a dramatic rise in the number of suicide-related emergency calls over the past three years, a spike of 61 percent from 2010 to 2012.

City and county officials say the rising numbers lead to heightened concerns over the safety of rescue workers because of the danger of a suicidal suspect using a weapon to attack an officer. And it takes a mental toll on those who receive and respond to the calls.

Ed Reuter, director of the Bartholomew County Emergency Operations Center, keeps track of three types of suicide-related calls:

Suicide threats: A victim is planning to take his or her own life.

Suicide attempt with injury: A victim has taken steps to harm himself, whether through drugs, weapons or other means, but is still alive.

Suicide: The victim has killed himself or herself.

While the number of calls of suicide attempts and threatened suicides are up dramatically, the number of actual suicides in Bartholomew County has remained consistent during the past decade, at about 11 a year.

Challenges of the job

The first line of help when a suicide-related call comes into the center is the dispatcher who takes the call, Reuter said. Where suicide-related calls used to come in every couple of days, now it is nearly a daily occurrence according to the statistics. Responding to any call is a complicated dance of questions, empathy and information gathering, Reuter said.

In a case in which a suicidal victim calls in, dispatchers are trying to talk subjects out of hurting themselves, while simultaneously gathering enough information to summon emergency workers to the location.

Although the dispatch center has a set of cards at each station outlining procedures for nearly every imaginable type of call, suicide calls require an especially personal touch, Reuter said. A loud, hysterical subject would require a different approach than someone who is crying and speaking softly, for example.

Dispatcher Angela Lee has been in her role for 24 years. In one call several years ago, Lee spoke to a troubled victim for 22 minutes before the person committed suicide.

“You just become a friend over the phone. You become concerned about them and ask them why would they want to do that,” Lee said.

“They are calling somebody to reach out. You just try your best to get to know them just a little bit. Find something that you might be able to pick on to get them to think on it.”

Officers and deputies usually are the first to arrive on scene. Their first priority is to make sure the location is safe before paramedics and firefighters can come in to help a victim, police said. The worst case from a safety perspective is when a suicidal suspect is still armed when police arrive.

“Obviously someone who has overdosed on pills will require a little bit different response than someone who is threatening suicide with a gun or with a knife,” said Todd Harry, deputy chief of the Columbus Police Department.

“If they have cut themselves or there potentially are guns in the house, our officers will get there and assure that they don’t have access to these weapons, they don’t have a knife. If it is necessary, our officers will detain them with restraints or handcuffs. Generally we get there and make sure that everyone is safe and if there is medical attention required that we make sure that person gets that medical attention.”

Every year, police go through training that includes a mental health component, covering a large number of topics, such as suicidal victims and those with autism, Harry said. Almost every shift now calls for officers to handle a mental health crisis of some sort, including suicide attempts or threats.

Officers are mindful of the “suicide by cop” phenomenon, in which suicidal suspects plan to act in such a way that police are forced to shoot and kill them, Harry said.

“It is very, very real,” Harry said. “Our ultimate goal is to get up there and set up a perimeter and call that person out and have a negotiated surrender, where we can convince the person to put their weapons away or put the weapons down and basically turn themselves over to us. The last thing we want to do is have it turn into a barricaded subject call where we have to activate SWAT and get negotiators involved. That is a very real possibility for those types of calls.”

Coping with stress

Among those who answer and respond to the calls, the suicide-related incidents are some of the most traumatic dispatchers and officers deal with, officials said. The city and county both offer free counseling to employees who are having problems with these sorts of stressful situations.

Maj. Todd Noblitt, spokesman for the Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department, said each officer deals with the stress of the situations differently. A deputy with a teenager at home might have a hard time dealing with a teen suicide, where an officer with an elderly parent could feel stress when the victim is a senior citizen.

In Noblitt’s years with the department, one thing that has changed is that police no longer put up a front that none of what they see in the field affects them. Supervisors are sensitive to the stress officers feel and can suggest their subordinates seek counseling, Noblitt said.

“People sometimes think that cops are superhumans and that things don’t bother them, but the fact is cops are the same as anybody else,” Noblitt said. “When you place an individual in an abnormal situation, a suicide or a death of a child, being a policeman or not doesn’t matter. You are still going to feel those same types of emotions, those same types of feelings.

“What happens, and why we do so much training, is because you are going to experience the same emotions and the same feelings, you need to be able to rely on your training.”

But just after the incident, there is no time for an officer or dispatcher to regroup before they move on to the next emergency.

“We cannot take them out of service for an hour, a day or whatever,” Harry said. “Once they leave that call, it is on to the next one.”

Lee said she has learned to keep the stress of being a dispatcher compartmentalized from her life.

“It is my job, it is what I do,” Lee said. “I don’t take it home with me. I leave it there. Not to say that I don’t care that just happened. But I don’t take it home with me.”

Ashley Bear, a county dispatcher for about two years, said she also has learned to simply move on to the next emergency.

“Sometimes I make myself personally feel better by just silently saying a prayer for them and their family members, in my own mind and head, laying everything in God’s hands. Because I have got to get going,” Bear said. “On second shift, it isn’t long until you get another call.”

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