11/13/2007

Calif. dispatchers called "conductors" in public safety symphony

By Chris Durant
The Eureka Times-Standard 

EUREKA, Calif. — Within seconds, a police officer pulling someone over or responding to a call can have loads of information on a suspect, their location and possible safety concerns.

It's all provided to them after split-second broadcasts and the rapid punching of a keyboard by dispatchers back at the law enforcement agency's headquarters.

Without dispatchers, officers would go into situations blind.

"It's one of those jobs that doesn't get monotonous," said Eureka Police Department dispatcher Jennelle Miller. "You don't know when you pick up the phone what it's going to be. You pick up the phone and someone is screaming in your ear."

Miller has been a dispatcher for a year and half, and it's what she's wanted to do since job shadowing her aunt, who also worked for EPD, in high school.

"She's the one who got me hooked on it," Miller said.

Miller's partner Thursday night was dispatcher Amanda Nichols, who's been a dispatcher with the department for five years.

But she's been with EPD longer than that.

"I started when I was 16, as a car washer," Nichols said.

Her father, Ron Waters, was an officer with the department. She grew up in it.

Both said most dispatchers have a family tie to law enforcement, and if they don't, they'll have one when they start working.

"It's much more of a big family than a workplace," Nichols said. "We're so fortunate we have a great relationship with our officers. They understand and appreciate the importance of our jobs as we do theirs."

Nichols has been to training seminars and exercises around the country and has heard of departments that don't have the same relationship between dispatchers and officers.

Over the course of a night, up to a dozen police officers and about 15 firefighters are dependent on dispatch to get as much information about a call, suspect or location before the officer or firefighters arrive.

"We get all the information ready," Nichols said.

As the call progresses, updates and changes in information are quickly punched into a computer, which the officer has access to in their vehicle.

"Changes mean officer safety concerns for dispatch," Nichols said.

The main screen in the three-screen dispatchers work area is the Computer Aided Dispatch, or CAD, screen.

"This is like the blood of our world," Nichols said. "When it goes down the world here ends."

There are backups in place, like having the assistance of the Humboldt County Sheriff Department's dispatch center as well as other agencies.

The EPD shares its CAD system with the Arcata and Fortuna police departments, which means when a dispatcher looks up information on someone, previous contacts with all three departments are listed.

Thursday, Miller answered the calls to the station and 911, while Nichols handled dispatching officers.

The dispatch center at EPD was remodeled last year, and now has the capacity for six dispatchers working at once.

Every type of call in has its own tone or jingle, indicating if it's a 911 call, an office call or an in-house call.

With the remodel came a new tone for 911, which was a welcome change for the dispatchers who have to hear it all day.

Nichols described the old tone as "scary."

"You'd hear it and say 'Oh my God, 911 is ringing'," Nichols said.

Dispatchers don't need any added stress during 911 calls, because the person on the other end usually isn't cool, calm or collected.

"It's kind of 50/50 between frantic or scared and angry," Miller said. "Sometimes it's hard to work around that anger to get them to tell you what you need to know."

And that can be really tricky when someone just wants to talk to an officer.

"We ask 1,001 questions," Nichols said. "It's not that we're trying to be nosey, but we paint a picture for the officers before they get there."

Some people think 911 is like 411, and they're calling some call center in a far off location for their emergency.

"They say 'Eureka, California,'" Miller said.

Since citizens can't just pick up a phone and call an officer directly, dispatch is also the venting ground for people angry and frustrated with police.

"We listen to it and thank the people for their input but the unfortunate thing is being on the line venting or complaining may mean we miss a real emergency," Nichols said.

Officers, police service officers and volunteers routinely visit the dispatch center for paperwork and small talk throughout the night, most showing their appreciation for their "eyes and ears."

"I couldn't do this job," said Police Services Officer Kris Gattis. "They do so much work."

Dispatchers have a wealth of information available to them, perhaps 50 different databases, Nichols said.

The frequently used ones include the California Department of Motor Vehicles and restraining order information to the lesser used ones, like Interpol and the Canadian driver's license database.

"We'll go through our entire career and never access them," Nichols said.

But again, it all comes down to keeping their officers and firefighters in the know.

"We want to know as little about a person as we have to, but enough to keep our officers safe," Nichols said.

You always hear of dispatchers walking people through births over the phone, which neither Miller nor Nichols have done all the way, but they have been in the room when other dispatchers have done it.

"I've gotten to give instructions up until the firefighters arrived," Nichols said. "But one of the other girls got to deliver twins by the side of the road. We all took time to listen in on the phone call."

Nichols remembers a night last December that kept everyone on their toes for hours.

"It was absolute insanity," Nichols said, referring to Dec. 8, when officers were involved with a 30-hour standoff that ended in a shooting, while at the same time a building in Old Town was burning down.

"It was one of those moments where I've never been more proud of what we do and the people I work with," Nichols said.

Copyright 2007 Times - Standard
All Rights Reserved

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