Volusia dispatchers receive more training after increase in mental health calls

County is also seeing increase in suicide calls

VOLUSIA COUNTY, Fla. – Volusia County emergency dispatchers are going through innovative emergency mental health training to help them better deal with both suicidal callers and their own mental health.

More than 130 county dispatchers are learning in the program led by Jim Marshall, the founder of The 911 Institute. This spring, they will sharpen their skills since the results of mental health and suicide calls often rely on what they say.

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“In our profession, there’s always a fear because there isn’t much training in this as we would like that we may say the wrong thing,” Emergency Communications Director James Soukup said.

Sheriff Mike Chitwood said over the pandemic, those types of calls have jumped, with 53 mental distress calls already this year. Over the last 10 years, the number of suicide calls per year has more than doubled, which could go along with the growing population the dispatchers handle.

“There was a stretch during the pandemic where I think we probably had 10 suicides in 14 days,” Chitwood said.

Chitwood said the dispatchers are learning what to say and who is best to send to a scene. VCSO introduced counselors who can go to scenes with iPads with counselors ready to talk for supervisors to take on the road.

“It’s nice to know that you have an autistic child who is acting out, who has a complete aversion to a uniform and lights and sirens. Then we wouldn’t send them,” Chitwood said.

Soukup said what’s also important this week is that dispatchers are learning how to handle their own well-being.

“We hear the tragic screams and we hear some very traumatic incidents over the phone,” he said.

The training is costing the sheriff’s office about $30,000. Each dispatcher will go through 24 hours of the training and will take a written exam at the end.