Friday, April 13, 2012

Dispatchers: Who Are We?

The following story was written by one of our veteran CRESA Dispatchers, Kelly Sharp, as a glimpse of life behind the voice & radio microphone.  Thanks, Kelly!  
For more than 30 years, receiving help for police, fire or medical emergencies has been as simple as dialing 9-1-1. You can reach them twenty four hours a day, seven days a week.  But did you ever wonder who “they” are?

For the citizens of Clark County, 9-1-1 is the Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency (CRESA). 

Serving 10 police agencies, 14 fire and EMS agencies and 435,000 citizens, CRESA provides one-stop shopping from their downtown location. Last year, the 52 dispatchers at CRESA answered almost 380,000 calls. That comes out to over 31,000 calls a month, or 1,034 calls per day. Plus, we are responsible for all police and fire radio traffic, dispatching over 265,000 calls for service in 2012.

Though many are curious about what the job is like, the chances of actually meeting a 911 dispatcher are slim. It is estimated that only three percent of our population can do the job. We are rarely seen in public, preferring instead to be just a voice on the phone helping you get through what may be the worst day of your life. But once a year, during National 9-1-1 Telecommunicator Week, the elusive 9-1-1 dispatchers pop out from under their headsets to answer the most common questions about what it’s really like to work at 9-1-1.

What Kind Of Calls Do You Take?
Yes, those calls they make fun of on shows like Jay Leno really do exist. Every dispatcher eventually gets a call from someone complaining because the garbage truck comes too early in the morning or the french fries weren’t hot enough.  If we get those crazy callers, the dispatcher will calmly explain this is not an emergency and offer suggestions on who else they can call to solve their problem.

You never know what the answer to “9-1-1 how can I help you” is going to be. It could be a frantic mother looking for her child. A caller saying the neighbor’s house is on fire; a teen, home alone, who can hear someone rummaging through the living room; or a request for the recipe for chocolate chip cookies.  

Regardless of the question, dispatchers are expected to handle them all with poise and professionalism. It can be alternately frustrating and rewarding, filled with callers ranging from endearing to distraught.

What Do You Like Best About the Job?
Other than the obvious of helping people, most dispatchers will say they like the pace of the job. It is feast or famine. Either the phones don’t ring or they all ring at once. The environment is ever changing and you always have to be on your game. 9-1-1 is not the place for people who don’t like having to think on their feet.

Then there is the sheer randomness of the calls. There is no rhyme or reason, so you never know what is going to happen next. Within 10 minutes you could take a call about a burglary that occurred while the homeowner was on vacation, help someone do CPR on an elderly grandmother and then deal with someone asking for the name of the governor.

What’s The Job Really Like?
As a dispatcher you are expected to know the answer to any question that may arise and be able to handle multiple tasks at once. You may be asked to provide instructions to deliver a baby, help a mom with her rebellious teenager or figure out which tow company impounded a car. At the same time, you are in the midst of tracking radio traffic to ensure your police and fire responders get to where they need to go.

Doing it all at once is the name of the game. While one ear is listening to the citizen telling you her car was broken into last night, the other ear hears the officer ask for directions to his call. Then there is that ear in the back of your head, tuned into your fellow dispatchers so you can hear updates and information coming in from around the room.

This multi-tasking ability and the encyclopedic knowledge needed to handle just about anything that comes their way is a result of intensive training.  But it doesn’t come easily. Making a dispatcher is like making a Marine: Many will try, few will succeed.

How Do You Train For The Job?
At CRESA, dispatch training runs from 18 – 24 months. It begins with an eight-week academy that teaches the basics of the dispatch world. Classes are taught by dispatchers and revolve around learning and practicing how to take 9-1-1 calls. You have to learn an entirely new language made up of codes and abbreviations and memorize hundreds of policies and procedures. Then comes on-the-job training, where a Certified Training Officer (CTO) monitors every move you make.

Just to keep it interesting, there are four tests along the way. Flunk one and you’re out. A lot of pressure? You bet. To do this job you have to be able to work under pressure, so you may as well start stressing right off the bat. But once you make it through training, you know you have achieved an incredible accomplishment. You are a 9-1-1 Dispatcher.  You become one of them.

It’s funny though. Once you get to know us, you may find that many dispatchers downplay what they do. We don’t necessarily see ourselves as overly important in the emergency process and often refuse to take credit for their extraordinary role. “I just think of myself as helping guide people through a journey they are not able to take on their own,” said one veteran dispatcher who asked to remain anonymous. Unlike those who rush to the scene, 9-1-1 dispatchers are most comfortable hidden with their computers and radios behind locked doors in darkened rooms. We are content to be the unseen, and unsung, heroes.

1 comment:

Diana said...

Great article...and well articulated! Thanks for sharing this important message.
Diana P.
Former dispatcher