Exploring the Physical and Mental Health Challenges Associated with Emergency Service Call-Taking and Dispatching: A Review of the Literature

Erin C. Smith, Lisa Holmes, Frederick M. Burkle

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


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Challenges to physical health included: shift-work leading to lack of physical activity, poor nutrition, and obesity; outdated and ergonomically ill-fitted equipment, and physically confining and isolating work spaces leading to physical injuries; inadequate breaks leading to fatigue;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.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)619-624
Number of pages6
JournalPrehospital and disaster medicine
Issue number6
StatePublished - Dec 1 2019
Externally publishedYes


  • call-taker
  • dispatcher
  • emergency service
  • health
  • mental health

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Emergency Medicine
  • Emergency


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