Exploring the physical and mental health challenges associated with emergency service call-taking and dispatching: A review of the literature

Document Type

Journal Article

Publication Title

Prehospital and Disaster Medicine


Cambridge University Press


School of Medical and Health Sciences




Smith, E. C., Holmes, L., & Burkle, F. M. (2019). Exploring the physical and mental health challenges associated with emergency service call-taking and dispatching: A review of the literature. Prehospital and Disaster Medicine, 34(6), 619-624. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1049023X19004990


Introduction: Emergency service (ambulance, police, fire) call-takers and dispatchers are often exposed to duty-related trauma, placing them at increased risk for developing mental health challenges like stress, anxiety, depression, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Their unique working environment also puts them at-risk for physical health issues like obesity, headache, backache, and insomnia. Along with the stress associated with being on the receiving end of difficult calls, call-takers and dispatchers also deal with the pressure and demand of following protocol despite dealing with the variability of complex and stressful situations.Methods: A systematic literature review was conducted using the MEDLINE, PubMed, CINAHL, and PsychInfo databases.Results: A total of 25 publications were retrieved by the search strategy. The majority of studies (n = 13; 52%) reported a quantitative methodology, while nine (36%) reported the use of a qualitative research methodology. One study reported a mixed-methods methodology, one reported an evaluability assessment with semi-structured interviews, one reported on a case study, and one was a systematic review with a narrative synthesis.Discussion: Challenges to physical health included: shift-work leading to lack of physical activity, poor nutrition, and obesity; outdated and ergonomically ill-fitted equipment, and physically confining and isolating work spaces leading to physical injuries; inadequate breaks leading to fatigue; and high noise levels and poor lighting being correlated with higher cortisol levels. Challenges to mental health included: being exposed to traumatic calls; working in high-pressure environments with little downtime in between stressful calls; inadequate debriefing after stressful calls; inappropriate training for mental-health-related calls; and being exposed to verbally aggressive callers. Lack of support from leadership was an additional source of stress.Conclusion: Emergency service call-takers and dispatchers experience both physical and mental health challenges as a result of their work, which appears to be related to a range of both operational and support-based issues. Future research should explore the long-term effects of these physical and mental health challenges. © 2019 World Association for Disaster and Emergency Medicine.



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