Dispatchers provide lifeline to residents, officers

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It's anxiety.

The woman is frantic when she dials 911 at 2 a.m. because her son is choking. The only reassurance she has is the voice at the other end of the line calmly explaining what to do, both of them hoping the ambulance arrives in time.

Often it does.

Officers who arrive on scene are given a profuse and emotional "thanks," as are the ambulance personnel and doctors waiting at the emergency room, but the ones who took the call and suffered anxiety similar to the mother's usually don't hear back.

"We're the lifeline to the officers the first contact the public has in good and bad instances," Colorado State Patrol Communications Supervisor Ruth Wade said. "It's nice to have someone say 'thank you' once in a while because we usually don't get a lot of that."

This week was set aside as National Telecommunicators Week, bringing those who hold the lifeline into the limelight.

The Colorado State Patrol (CSP) communications center in Craig dispatches calls for six counties and will expand its territory in July of 2001 as the result of a legislative mandate to consolidate services. Dispatchers handle calls for the CSP, sheriff's departments, police departments and the Division of Wildlife in six counties. Until the Moffat County Public Safety Center is built, the Craig Police Department will have five dispatchers. Once constructed, CSP will also handle calls for the Craig Police Department.

Dispatchers are working 24 hours each day, seven days each week, 365 days each year. They deal with emergencies, panicked callers and calls about weather and road conditions.

"Calls that shouldn't even be made to 911 are made and we answer them," Wade said.

Once, she said, a child called because his pet was being attacked by another dog.

"We sent an officer because to that kid, it was an emergency," CSP Regional Manager Lynette Stieb-Sorensen said. "We do what we've got to do."

The hardest parts of the job are shift work and dealing with other people's tragedies, Wade said.

"We do a job where we can't ever get up and walk away from the desk," she said. "It's a job where learning to go to the bathroom fast is a benefit."

Complications often arise.

Dispatchers have to take calls from children, intoxicated people, people with speech impediments and those who don't speak English.

They take unusual requests and try to deal with them courteously.

People ask a year in advance what the road conditions will be like, they demand that officers go find hunters when even they don't know where they're hunting and they want dispatchers to make sure the roads will be clear for their trip.

"Under a great deal of stress and pressure, we have to remain calm and courteous," said Stieb-Sorensen.

New technology is helping and hampering the job. According to Stieb-Sorensen, cellular phones complicate matters because the strongest tower picks up the call. The CSP has dispatched calls in Wyoming because the cellular call was sent to the Craig office.

"People think we're nuts when we ask what county they're calling from," said Stieb-Sorensen.

People also believe the dispatcher has the same information as he or she would if the person were calling from home and that's not true.

The CSP system hasn't been upgraded to automatically receive a call-back number and the latitude and longitude of a call.

Dispatchers train anywhere from 10 to 21 weeks for the job. They take classes from computer and basic phone skills to classes certifying them as emergency medical dispatchers.

"We send our people to as much training as we can find," Wade said. "Anything we can think of that will give them an advantage when they're doing their job."

There's no training to become machines and many times the tragedy over the radio impacts a dispatcher personally.

Several times in the past five years a dispatcher has had to handle a call about someone they knew.

"That is the worst," Stieb-Sorensen said. "Many times dispatchers work when a family member or friend is in an accident or fatality."

And the nature of the job doesn't allow that dispatcher to get up and leave the room.

"They always have to finish the job and go on to the next," Wade said. "Until the job is done they cannot leave the room."

"We try to protect the public by not airing names and license plate numbers, but we can't protect the dispatchers," Stieb-Sorensen said.

It's a tough job, she said, and it takes a special person to do it.

"You either make it or you don't."

In most cities, five to seven years is the average time a person will work as a dispatcher, but Stieb-Sorensen said this area is lucky to not have a high turnover rate. In the Craig office, there are dispatchers who have worked anywhere from six months to 16 years. At the Craig Police Department, all but one person have worked there for more than three years.

"These people are very important to the community and I want them to be recognized for that," Stieb-Sorensen said.

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