Unsung heroes work behind the scenes at local dispatch center –
Story and photos by Patricia Beech –
When you’re in trouble they’re the calm, reassuring voices on the other end of the line, offering assurances that help is on the line and on the way.
“It all begins with the dispatchers,” says Sheriff Kimmy Rogers. “They’re the first of the first to respond to a cry for help, and they never know what kind of crisis they’ll be dealing with.”
Adams County’s nine-member public safety telecommunicators are a critical link between the community and first responders. Seated in a closed-off, windowless room, surrounded by 16 brightly lit computer monitors, three wide-screen televisions, and state-of-the-art communications equipment, they work 12-hour days mobilizing law enforcement, fire departments, and emergency medical staff in all manner of emergency situations.
The week of April 9-15 is National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week. It is a week set aside to honor dispatchers in the public safety community for their contributions to emergency services.
Adams County dispatchers – Kristian Hughes, Sarah Murphy, Jennifer Smith, Chelsea Williams, Shannon Mitchell, Eugene McCleese, Tammy Baker, Samara Estes, Dillon Raines, and Ashley McClure are always there to answer calls – 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.
Though highly-trained and dedicated to making a difference in the lives of others, it isn’t a job they do for recognition or thanks.
“We sure don’t see ourselves as heroes,” says Jennifer Smith. “We only see ourselves as doing the job we are trained to do – despite the hours, the low pay, or the missed holidays with our families. We are a team, we are a family. We do what we can to make a difference and sometimes, once in a while, we do get to feel like a hero.”
Twenty-year dispatch veteran Shannon Mitchell, says she thinks people have misconceptions about what dispatchers do.
“Some people think the only thing we do is answer the phone and talk on the radio, this is only a fraction of what we do,” Mitchell says. “We not only handle emergency calls, but also numerous non- emergency complaints, questions, and so on. We are also required to enter all county warrants, protection orders, missing persons and carry concealed weapons into the Law-enforcement Automated Database – it requires a lot of time and data entry.”
Tammy Baker, who has spent 18 years working as a dispatcher agrees, “While maintaining communication with a caller we have to keep up with multiple officers, fire and EMS personnel to make sure they have the information and resources they need. So, most of the time multitasking isn’t a plus, it’s a requirement.”
A dispatcher’s job involves periods of inactivity and periods of extreme business, but overall it’s characterized by a lack of predictability – you never know what’s coming next, and each of the dispatchers has developed their own way of coping with those extremes.
Twelve-year dispatch veteran Sarah Murphy says, “When you do this job for so long it doesn’t really bother you to go from entering a warrant to giving CPR, getting calls about a tree down, to paging a fire department out for a structure fire. You just learn to roll with it.”
Each of the dispatchers know it’s inevitable that something tragic is going to happen while they’re at work, and each has their own way of coping with it.
Baker says it isn’t a good idea to dwell on the possibility. “I take each call as it comes and handle it to the best of my ability – that’s where the training kicks in.”
“Dealing with the death of a child is the worst part of the job,” Mitchell says. “Sometimes afterwards I’ve had to sit at my desk and cry and ask myself if I did everything I could have. Then I have to pull myself back together and answer that next call.”
Murphy says after emotionally-charged calls she will often take a break, step outside and try to reset. “We can’t afford to have calls keep us down, it could put other callers in jeopardy,” she says. “I took a call several years ago from my sister’s best friend. I stayed calm and got him what he needed, but it wasn’t enough. That day I had to leave because I couldn’t stay focused.”
“It’s our job to try to take some of the stress and grief from the people who call, and in the end, sometimes it becomes ours,” says Smith. “We try not to take the calls home with us, but it’s much easier said than done.”
The dispatchers say they also get their fair share of ridiculous calls: “I had someone call in screaming about a bear on their back porch that turned out to be a rug,” said Murphy.
“We do get a lot of silly calls,” says Baker. “But, I can’t repeat most of them because they’re not fit for family consumption.”
Kristian Hughes who has clocked in 12 years as a dispatcher says, “You just shake your head and keep doing your job.”
Success within a telecommunication center depends largely on team effort that benefits both the community and first responders.
“Our citizens are our first priority,” says Smith, “Once a call is dispatched, then our priority is divided between our caller and our first responder – their safety is a prime concern as well, we know the dangers they face on every call they go on. In all reality, we all have the same goal and that is to serve and protect.”
In the year 2016 the Adams County 911 Communication Center answered a total of 22,381 calls for law enforcement, fire, and emergency services.