911 Emergency Dispatcher: The calm voice in the dark

The thin gold line represents those who aren’t ever seen, but are mostly heard; it stands for dispatchers


Charlene Belew
The Duncan Banner, Okla.

Most people have heard about the “thin red line” and the “thin blue line,” but what about the thinest gold line in the middle? That thin gold line represents those who aren’t ever seen, but are mostly heard. That thin gold line stands for dispatchers, who act as “the golden glue that holds it all together” when it comes to receiving emergency calls and sending out first responders.

National Public Safety Telecommunications Week falls between April 14-20. This week is a time to honor those dispatchers and public safety telecommunicators for the jobs they perform behind the scenes.

National Public Safety Telecommunications Week is a time to honor those dispatchers and public safety telecommunicators for the jobs they perform behind the scenes. (Photo/mil.wa.gov)
National Public Safety Telecommunications Week is a time to honor those dispatchers and public safety telecommunicators for the jobs they perform behind the scenes. (Photo/mil.wa.gov)

Heather George, who works with the Stephens County Sheriff’s Office as the 911 dispatch supervisor, said there are 10 total dispatchers from the county. From just Jan. 1 - March 31, these dispatchers have taken a total of 6,045 calls, both inbound and outbound, not including internal calls between the departments, which can sometimes fall in the 400-600 range each month. Usually, according to George, there are at least two dispatchers on duty at a time, except some early morning hours where there may only be one.

The dispatch center George works for handles calls for the county and dispatch for deputies, while also dispatching for Velma and some for Comanche. In total, there are seven rural fire department they dispatch for, along with Velma EMS.

George, who has been with the department since it began in 2011, has six employees of her own which have been in service for more than six years and three more employees who have served for right at or under three years apiece.

“Dispatchers work 12 hour shifts and when they come into the office, they get briefed by the shift that they are relieving. This is for any pertinent information that may be needed during another shift — ongoing calls or calls that haven’t been completed yet,” George said. “The dispatcher sits in front of four or five computer screens depending on which station they sit at. One works County for the deputies and works fire and phones. The fire/phones person also has the OLETS computer (Oklahoma Law Enforcement Telecommunications System) which lets us communicate with every other law enforcement agency in the U.S.”

These dispatchers use multiple systems they log into before they can actually begin their shift. These programs include ODIS, the data entry system that houses all the logs created for everything that comes over the radio and phone, CallWorks which is for 911 phone system and 911 mapping, a warrants system, recording system, OLETS and other resources which can be used to find locations, land or cow owners and more.

“We have clerical functions that have to be performed during the shift — warrant and protective order entries, citation and warning entries, etc. — but really, we wait,” George said. “We wait for someone to call or to key up on the radio, we wait to gather information, we wait for that person to call who is experiencing the worst day of their life and try to handle the call as professionally and efficiently as possible. I have been doing this job for 11 years and my heart still drops a little every time 911 rings and every time an officer out on a traffic stop or a call doesn’t answer their radio. You always know it’s going to be a bad call when you can hear the screams before you even get the receiver to your ear.”

For George and other dispatchers, this recognition week is extremely important, because most of the general public don’t realize the dispatchers are truly the first responders to the situations they’re calling about.

“We are the first person who knows what’s going on and we are the only reason anyone ever gets help. Police and Firefighters are always recognized as they should be, but without us, that police officer and firefighter would never come,” George said. “We work the shift work and spend the nights, weekends and holidays away from our families just like they do, we put our blood, sweat and tears into the job, just like they do, but we are invisible. Just a voice.”

George described taking calls where the dispatcher must remain calm to help save a life until a physical first responder can arrive to the scene.

“If an officer shows up to a house where, lets say, a woman is not breathing and the husband has started CPR, the officer goes in and takes over compressions and saves that individual, they are a hero — and they are — but what you won’t hear about is how we got all the information from a screaming husband quickly and gave it to the officer,” George said. “We convinced that horrified husband to get his wife to a flat surface and talked him through how to start CPR, we stayed on the phone to be his comfort and his cheerleader to get him through until the officer arrived. Then once they get there, we hang up, most of the time never to hear what happened, to know if she lived or died, we just move on to the next call. We get no closure.”

Handling dispatch calls calmly while the caller on the other line is having the worst day of their life isn’t where the job stops, though. Sometimes dispatchers receive calls about their own families and can’t do anything but their job until it’s over. Other times, the call is much darker and dispatchers hear tragedy happening actively.

“We have dispatchers that have taken calls involving their own families. Just a couple weeks ago, one of our dispatchers, while at work, heard his own address come over the radio as his house was burning down,” she said. “One dispatcher got a 911 call that his daughter wasn’t breathing. I myself was at work when a call came across of my sister and her kids being in a car accident. We have had people hurt while we are on the phone, and have people even commit suicide while on the phone with us. And even in all those situations, we finish taking care of the call before reacting to the incidents.”

George said there isn’t a specific type of person attracted to the job. Sometimes, people end up in dispatch simply because they needed the paycheck, or maybe because they wanted a stepping stone into actual law enforcement. With George, it wasn’t something she had thought about until her first day when she realized this is how she would spend the rest of her life.

“I loved being the person that was there in someone’s greatest time of need,” she said. “My very first 911 call I ever took was a screaming mother that had woke up to find her child had died during the night. It was terrifying, but also when I knew it’s what I would do for the rest of my life. I went outside and cried after that call. I have never worked with anyone or interviewed anyone who said that this is just what they have always wanted to do … but I don’t think it’s one kind of person that wants to be a dispatcher and strives to become one, it takes all kinds.”

A personal story of George’s that has never slipped her memory includes a call from an older gentleman advising someone came to his home and told him about a car accident.

“The accident was a mother and two children, and it was bad. Ejections and fatalities, the husband of the driver was the one who came upon the accident and went to the callers house for help. The caller told me he was going to the crash and would call me back with the details I needed. I of course started everyone that way while waiting for his call. This caller was back on the phone with me in what seemed like seconds,” George recalled. “He was at the scene and told me it was bad. He was calm and had such a soothing voice. He started describing the scene for me and it was horrific. He came upon the deceased person from that accident and knew immediately that they were not alive, and he began to pray over them and pray for the survivors. I stayed on the line the whole time and silently sobbed in my chair. It still chokes me up to even talk about it now, it was so sad yet so beautiful all at the same time. I have no idea what happened to the rest of the people involved in that accident nor do I even know who they were because the caller wasn’t involved, but I will never forget it as long as I live. It kept me awake at night for a while as some of our calls do. Another call I will never forget was the Braylee Henry murder in Velma, that night was very difficult for many reasons, but it was a night that I think about often.”

There are a few things the general public can do when it comes to working with these dispatchers. The first is to keep in mind that it’s not at all like what it seems in the movies.

“Yes, we can ping your calls, but not immediately, it takes a few seconds and even then, if you are moving, it takes time to refresh to the new location,” George said. “I can’t tell you how many calls I get that the person says, ‘Get someone here now!’ or ‘I don’t know my address can’t you see it on the map?’ Write your address down, not just for you, and not just for your child in case they ever need to call, but also for those times that you may be so panicked and so distraught, you simply can not think of what it is.”

The second thing people can do when working with dispatchers includes properly handling 911 hang-ups and accidental pocket dials. Dispatchers want to know you’re safe, not get you in trouble.

“If you accidentally call 911, that’s okay,” she said. “We just ask that you stay on the line and let us know it was an accident. If you give your small child an old phone it can still call 911 even if there is no service, again, if they accidentally call just stay on the line. No one will get in trouble for calling, we just want to make sure you are safe.”

When it comes to celebrating these behind the scenes heroes, George said there’s an open selection of what can be done to recognize the dispatchers.

“If you know a dispatcher tell them you appreciate them, if you don’t, call the office, let them know you see them, you know they’re there and you appreciate what they do,” she said. “The biggest thing the public can do for us is trust us. We know that when you call 911, you may be experiencing the worst day of your life and I know our questions seem irritating, but they are necessary. And just because we are still asking questions three minutes into the conversation, doesn’t mean we don’t have people started that way. It is imperative for us to get the most information we can while on the phone, because once we disconnect or if we accidentally get disconnected or if their phone dies, we may not be able to reach them again.”

George also honors those dispatchers in the area, even if it is out of her own pocket. This year, George has reached out and received enthusiasm back from entities including Papa Johns, Chicken Express, Special Days Cakes, Rib Crib, Pizza Hut, Wendy’s and Viridian. George said AMR and Air Evac are also planning to throw a cookout for the dispatchers as a way to thank them.

“It’s a welcome treat in such a thankless job that we all love so much,” she said.

Stephens County Sheriff Wayne McKinney said the week provides a chance to sing the song of the unsung heroes.

“They take the 911 emergency calls and people who are experiencing some of the worst times of their lives and have to talk to that individual, stay on the line with that individual, get deputies or police officers to the scene,” McKinney said. “A lot of times we don’t give them a lot of credit and we should. This is a time for us to recognize them and the job they do and show how much we appreciate them.”

Dispatchers do so much that McKinney couldn’t name just one thing he wanted the public to know about these workers.

“They’re the lifeline,” McKinney said. “If there’s an emergency that comes in, and the family members call 911 trying to get help, whether it be medical attention, whether it be law enforcement to the scene, fire department, whatever, they’re the ones who relay the information to make sure we get to the exact location and stay on the line to keep that person calm or give them instructions if it’s a medical emergency to render some kind of first aid until first responders get there. They do a whole lot that’s normally behind the scenes.”

For more information on National Public Safety Telecommunications Week, visit https://www.npstw.org/.

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©2019 The Duncan Banner (Duncan, Okla.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service
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