“A person’s worst day is our everyday. A normal shift for us is calls like suicide, drug overdoses, fatal accidents, and mental health issues just to name a few. These are calls that we, unfortunately, refer to as “routine”.  

Meet Eva Burnett, 33 years veteran Dispatch Operator.

“For a dispatcher, there’s a lot of crisis in one day. You must have very strong coping mechanisms, a good sense of humour, and SAFE stress relief. We encourage positive and safe stress relief because it can be easy for First Responders to turn to alcohol and other negatives to deal with PTSD.”  Woman, Eva, sits on office chair in front of computer equipment.

Burnett has seen lots of change within policing and emergency services over the past three decades. Attitudes towards mental health and attitudes toward policing have shifted significantly. Over the past 15 years, Burnett recognizes mental health indicators more than before in herself and others. As the Ottawa Police Service (OPS) representative for 9runrun, Burnett and her police officer husband support the event each year. 

Policing and mental well-being have been popular topics in Ottawa, both from a service provision point of view, like working with community members with mental health challenges. The impact of the job conditions has impacted police mental health too. The public scrutiny of the police impacts their well-being. The idea that by doing their job they may inadvertently (or perceived intentionally) harm someone has created distress for some when it comes to routine activities. 

Burnett talks about this environment and says, “I think that’s why we tend to marry other First Responders! Then we know our partners really have a sense of what we are going through. I personally can’t imagine being married to someone who doesn’t understand tragedy being the daily norm. It must be very hard when your support system cannot relate to what we deal with each day.”

“Shift work, understaffing, and ever-shifting political pressures are part of the job. Policing is a job with no room for errors. You can’t have a bad day or off-day or forget protocols. Your head needs to be fully in the game or you shouldn’t be at work.”

“The Ottawa First Responders Foundation is necessary because we require access to services when needed, including peer support through a crisis line where experienced peers can talk to a First Responder struggling with strong emotions or want to talk through the challenges they are facing, anonymously. And often that isn’t during business hours.”

“OPS services have people on standby to support families and victims of crime. It is unfortunate that sometimes it feels that the emotional state of the First Responders is an afterthought. Replaying calls and events can be mentally exhausting. The realities and norms of our work are so different from other careers. My job is to triage emergencies. I can’t feel about every call or situation or I won’t function. You learn to compartmentalize your emotions so you can make the best decisions under extreme pressure. It’s like you become immune.” 

The department provides programs but the numbers outweigh the support system. “We need experienced staff to talk to, veterans or retirees would be ideal,” says Burnett, “Peer support programs could add opportunities to speak to a grounding and experienced person during challenging moments.”

The systems within the tri-service organizations are described as rigid and tough to change. “There is a desire to be flexible but realities make it impossible. The call volume at dispatch is very high and we are often understaffed. This often results in going in for your shift when you are mentally exhausted or drained.” For example, requiring a note when you need a mental health day can be a  challenge. “If I am up at 4:45 am for my dayshift but I had a terrible night’s sleep with insomnia or sick kids, should I really be coordinating 911 calls? I am not able to bring my full self to work but there are no flexible days off or mental health days to use.”

The Ottawa First Responders Foundation encourages more flexibility and understanding within Emergency Services.

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