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January 09, 2008
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A Closer Look: In honor and appreciation of emergency dispatchers

By Paula M. Felipe
Oroville Mercury Register
Op-Ed

OROVILLE, Calif. — During the recent storms, law enforcement, firefighters, public works, and PG&E crews came out in full force responding to people's calls for help. Local public safety dispatchers handled hundreds of calls. And, on average, the Oroville Police Department alone runs about 10,000 to 11,000 total calls (both emergency and non-emergency) every month.

I listened to the emergency traffic over the scanner during the storm and was so amazed and inspired at the professionalism, competence, dedication, and calm demeanor of the emergency dispatchers, who are really at the heart of any incident. Emergency dispatchers are the "unsung heroes of public safety," and we all owe a great debt of gratitude to them.

Colorado Police Chief Wagoner wrote: "Dispatchers connect the anxious conversations of terrified victims, angry informants, suicidal citizens and grouchy officers. They are the calming influence of all of them - the quiet, competent voices in the night that provide the pillars for the bridges of sanity and safety. They are expected to gather information from highly agitated people who can't remember where they live, what their name is, or what they just saw. And then, they are to calmly provide all that information to the officers, firefighters, or paramedics without error the first time and every time."

Public safety dispatchers are 9-1-1 operators who also monitor the location of emergency services personnel and equipment. They dispatch the appropriate type and number of units in response to calls for assistance. Just imagine the kind of qualities a good dispatcher would need to do his or her job. They are highly trained professionals, who are articulate, insightful/discerning, intelligent, intuitive, confident, brave, mature, dedicated people, who are on the front lines of public safety.

Dispatchers have to question each caller carefully to determine the type, seriousness, and location of the emergency. The dispatcher then quickly decides the priority of the incident, the kind and number of units needed, and the location of the closest and most suitable units available.

In a medical emergency, dispatchers keep in close touch not only with the dispatched units, but also with the caller. If certified for emergency medical services, the dispatcher can also provide medical instruction to those on the scene of the emergency until the paramedics arrive.

Dispatchers have challenging and stressful jobs as they handle all 9-1-1 emergency calls, non-emergency calls, and are in constant radio communication with the patrol officers. Dispatchers look up vehicle identification numbers, plate numbers, and driver's license numbers. They run the data through the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), which provides criminal background history information. For example, dispatchers tell officers if a restraining order is in effect; if someone is a wanted parolee; about a suspect's weapons history; or if someone is on parole or probation. The deputies' safety is their highest priority, and dispatchers alert them immediately if there are any warrants or if the vehicle is stolen.

When someone dials 9-1-1, it can be a matter of life and death. And, some callers can get very emotional and want to tell the dispatchers the whole history that led to the crisis. So, the dispatchers are trained to take charge of the call and know what information the officers and firefighters need in responding to an emergency. The dispatchers have to ask specific questions to obtain critical information, such as the exact address or location of an incident and if anyone needs medical help. The dispatchers working at law enforcement agencies routes medical calls and reports of any fires to the appropriate fire rescue agencies, who dispatch the ambulance and fire engines.

Law enforcement officers are always the first on scene for any kind of criminal violence, including reports of suicide. So, these officers are "first responders" who also are trained in emergency medical procedures and CPR. When responding to a criminal violence call or suicide, the fire rescue and medics stage in an area nearby until the police officers get control of the incident, secure the scene, and advise fire rescue and medics when it is "all clear" to go in and treat the injured. So, it's very important for dispatchers to remain calm, confident, and poised while dealing with callers who may be frightened or feeling panic in emergency situations. Dispatchers also provide a soothing, supportive voice on the other end of the radio for the deputy who is "in the field" serving the public and facing all manner of situations and problems.

Let's consider a single traffic stop: The deputy or police officer calls in the stop to the dispatcher, who creates a computer call and runs the license plate to ensure the vehicle is not stolen or wanted for anything. The officer then radios the names of all the people involved in the stop to the dispatcher, who then runs the names through the department warrant system and the nationwide warrant system. They then call any related departments to have them check their individual department(s) warrant system. If there are four persons in the vehicle then this process is done four times. This is all being done while the dispatcher is still answering the phones and handling other radio traffic. People's lives are on the line and dispatchers need to respond immediately and think on their feet. Dispatchers need to prioritize events, and deal with the most urgent calls first, and they need to be able to communicate in a most effective manner.

Not only does every call bring a unique situation, but one call's event can change quickly and dramatically, going from a "Code 4" (no lights or sirens) to a "Code 3" (lights and sirens flashing).

Public safety dispatchers require extensive training. They also have to pass a state-mandated test in addition to passing interview and oral board exams; a background investigation; psychological tests; and a three-hour written exam. Record-keeping is also part of a dispatcher's work, including report and arrival times, locations, date of in custody, and name of people involved. Also, public safety dispatchers have on-going training and keep up-to-date on new laws and procedures.

Public safety dispatchers operating in Butte County are working in the Butte County Sheriff's Office, Oroville Police Department, Chico Police, Chico State University Police, California Highway Patrol, Paradise Police, Gridley Police, and CAL Fire/Butte County Fire.

Dispatchers have been honored every year in April ever since the U.S. Congress passed legislation declaring "National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week." A congresswomen from Maryland, Mrs. Morella, announced in Oct. 1991: "Mr. Speaker, as the Republican sponsor of House Joint Resolution 284, and as a member of the Congressional Fire Services caucus, it is my pleasure to rise in support of this legislation to designate the second week of April, 1992, as 'National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week' . . . We depend upon public safety Telecommunicators to notify emergency personnel promptly, clearly, and calmly. We depend upon them to keep our husbands, our wives, and our children calm and assured in an emergency. We depend upon them for guidance and support in our most frantic and panicked moments. . .Mr. Speaker, some of us have been lucky enough not to have had to dial 911 in the middle of a fire, a robbery, or a medical emergency. But for the millions of Americans who have faced such an emergency, public safety telecommunicators have been there ready and willing to help. It is, indeed, fitting that we take time to recognize their invaluable contribution to our daily lives, and I am very pleased to support the designation of the second week of April, 1992, as 'National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week.'"

To all public safety dispatchers: You did an amazing job during the storm. It was an extremely busy and stressful time, and you were continuously bombarded with so many 9-1-1 calls and urgent incidents with powerlines coming down all over the place. And, you remained sharp, steadfast, strong, confident, calm, cool, and collected. Thank you!

Paula M. Felipe is the public safety reporter for the Oroville Mercury-Register.

Copyright 2008 Oroville Mercury-Register

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