Emergency dispatchers honored for dedication

National Telecommunicators Week recognizes law enforcement employees for their efforts

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They are one of the most important cogs in the machinery of law enforcement, yet they rarely receive public recognition.

Dispatchers are the organizational linchpin of law enforcement and an officer's lifeline, which is why the second week of April was officially designated "National Telecommunicators Week" to recognize their importance.

"First and foremost our responsibility is officer safety," said Sue Harper, dispatcher for the Craig Police Department. "We are the officer's lifeline."

When a call comes in, dispatchers record names, addresses, times, dates and other facts that are important to providing service and organizing investigations.

"We document the movements of the officers, and keep a record of the incidents they deal with," Harper said.

"After a while, a style develops with each of officer." said Veronica Cornutt, also a dispatcher with the CPD. "Each of their needs is different, they do things differently, and you learn to anticipate what they are going to need, and how they'll handle situations."

But not every call is a life-or-death situation. Dispatchers also take calls that deal with lesser issues.

"A lot of times, people just want to be heard. They don't want you to solve their problems right away, but just point them to a place where it can be solved," Cornutt said.

Both Cornutt and Harper feel their job is exciting, challenging and somewhat addictive.

"It's definitely an adrenaline rush, and there's always different things everyday," Cornutt said.

The two dispatchers both left the job for a time, but returned because other jobs didn't offer the same excitement or satisfaction.

Days can be very busy, and dispatcher has to learn how to organize their time so all their duties are covered.

"When a hot call comes in, we have to drop everything to deal with the situation. In the lulls of the day, we cover the details of what has happened and catch up on other duties neglected during a crisis or a hot call," Harper said. "You can tell when a something serious is happening, the voices go up a couple of levels."

Harper will be graduating from the police academy this May and hopes to be patrolling Craig with the CPD by summer.

"When you've been part of something that helps people, it's a very rewarding feeling," Cornutt said.

The Colorado State Patrol also has a dispatch center in Craig. It dispatches calls from six counties and will expand their territory in July as the result of a legislative mandate to consolidate services. They dispatch calls for the CSP, sheriff's departments, police departments and the Division of Wildlife in those counties. Until the Moffat County Pub-lic Safety Center is built, the Craig Police Department will have its own crew of dispatchers.

Once constructed, CSP will also handle calls to the Craig Police Department.

The CPD dispatchers cover calls that are dialed directly to the police, but if someone dials 911, they are routed through the CSP center.

"We are the 911 answering point for the Moffat County area," said Ruth Wade, Communications supervisor for the CSP. "When a call comes in, we can transfer the calls to any number of agencies, it just depends on the location, what's needed and where [the officers or emergency crews] need to respond."

Calls can be switched to stations as distant as Rawlings, Wyo., or Vernal, Utah, if need be, said Wade. The dispatchers at the CSP also cover a lot of ground organizationally, recording information for records and notes.

Wade agreed with the police department dispatchers that being a dispatcher is a very addictive job.

Wade has been the CSP Communic-ations Supervisor for two years, after being a dispatcher for eight years.

"We've already been recognized by our chief and the 911 board locally. Whatever else we receive will be a pleasant surprise," Wade said.

Dispatchers work 24-hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. They deal with emergencies, panicked callers and calls about weather and road conditions.

"Calls that shouldn't even be made to 911 are 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."

Dispatchers train anywhere from 10 to 21 weeks for their 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 and advantage when they're doing their job."

But 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 personally.

"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."

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 we are lucky in this area to not have a high turnover rate. In the Craig office, there are dispatchers who have worked anywhere from six months to 16 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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