First responders critical

Christina M. Currie

The letters and cards thank firefighters for their quick response, ambulance drivers for their calming presence and police officers for their objectivity.

Rarely do they mention the people who consider themselves the original first responders.

“It’s a thankless job,” Colorado State Patrol Dis–patcher Joan Durner said. “We’re not visible, so a lot of times we’re overlooked as far as our role in emergencies.”

But, the only reason that firefighters, emergency medical technicians and law enforcement officers respond to an emergency is because a dispatcher sent them there, Durner said.

The Colorado State Patrol Regional Dispatch Center in Moffat County fields an average of 113,000 calls a year for agencies in nine counties. It’s the center of all the state patrol calls in those counties and all emergency calls in Moffat County.

The right stuff

Only 3 percent of the population can work as dispatchers because of the skills needed, said Verlaine Harris, regional manager.

“It’s a highly specialized position. Especially with our computer-aided dispatch system, it’s a lot more technical,” she said.

The only way to prepare to be a dispatcher is to become one. There are no special schools or college degrees.

What it takes is an ability to multi-task, to stay calm under pressure and a person who’s detail-oriented.

The hiring process is rigorous. Harris started searching for potential dispatchers in July, and although the response was high, few have made it past the entrance requirements. Those requirements include a written test, a multi-tasking exercise, interview, polygraph and background check.

Six months later, the remaining applicants are nearing the final phases of hiring, but they’re not there yet.

Even fewer make it through 20 to 22 hours of required training.

“Training is one area where we tend to lose people,” Harris said. “The really hard part is multi-tasking.”

The average dispatcher’s career is five to seven years.

Turnover common

Dispatchers are tied to a desk for nearly all of their eight-plus-hour shifts. Their headsets are never quiet, so they learn to tune in at different levels, deciphering which information is critical to them and which is not. At the same time, they’re manning telephone lines — both administrative and emergency — all while directing road crews, emergency responders and law enforcement officers.

The center can employ as many as 16 dispatchers, two supervisors and one manager, but it’s down to one full-time and one-part time person.

“It’s difficult to keep communication center staff,” Harris said. “Turnover is one very common thing in this business because it is so stressful.”

Another challenge is that being a dispatcher requires shift work, Harris said. That’s the No. 1 reason employees give for quitting, she said.

“We’re on nights, holidays and weekends,” she said. “It’s one thing to know that’s what’s expected. It’s another thing to do it.”

Career dispatchers are unusual, Harris said.

For some, the job’s appeal is the adrenaline rush.

“I left one time, but I was so bored,” she said. Harris has been with the State Patrol for nine years.

She’s been in Craig for more than a year and said this office is different from others where she has worked because dispatchers take administrative calls and also dispatch. In other centers, two different people handle those functions.

A fine line

To be a dispatcher is to walk a fine line between empathy and callousness, Harris said.

“If you can’t separate yourself from the job, it will wear on you,” she said. “It just depends on the person. It’s easy to be too callous. It does take a special kind of person.”

Callers are often angry with dispatchers because they don’t feel the dispatcher’s calmness and control reflects the gravity of the situation, Harris said.

Dispatchers are trained to solicit information.

“Officers expect a decent picture of what’s going on at a scene by the questions we ask,” Harris said. “We’re only as good as the information we have.”

Communications officers are trained to take control of a situation and calm the callers.

“People become rational when they understand what you need and why,” Harris said.

For Durner, the job is about helping people. She started as a dispatcher six years ago because she liked the idea of working four days a week — even if they were 10-hour shifts.

“I had no idea what they did,” she said. “It was really quite a surprise.”

Two years later, she said she stays for the “warm fuzzy” feelings she gets.

“You get to make a difference in someone’s life,” she said.

To Sue Garrett, dispatching is just a job, but it’s one she takes very seriously.

“My back-up plan has become my career,” she said. “I’m a professional multi-tasker.”

Garrett said the adrenaline rush is one of the reasons she stays and one of the things that make her good at what she does.

“I work best when I’m in extreme situations,” she said.

And, there are always extreme situations.

Dispatchers deal with death almost on a daily basis, Garrett said. They deal with callers who are angry, frustrated, sad or panicked, and it’s hard not to share those emotions, she said.

The high points

The minute other dispatchers heard a co-worker repeat back to a caller “there’s been a shooting,” no words had to be said. Communications officers shifted their duties to offer support.

That teamwork, Harris said, meant that the shooter was caught almost immediately. An officer spotted the car he was in minutes after he left the scene.

“It went as smoothly as it could have,” she said. “If it wouldn’t have been for that automatic teamwork, they wouldn’t have caught that car.”

Garrett said it’s hard to shake off the stress that comes with the job, but she thinks having a sense of humor helps.

“I laugh every day,” she said.

All the dispatchers interviewed said that it’s difficult to be involved at the beginning of an emergency and not be able to see it through.

“There are calls you wish you could be there for,” Durner said. “You have a feeling of helplessness.”

Harris said sometimes dispatchers hear the outcome of a call, but many times they don’t.

911 isn’t information

Dispatchers take calls that are amusing — a man reported that aliens were moving his clothing and furniture out of his house. Another called from a cellular phone to ask how to call 911 from a cellular phone.

Some people call to ask when it will stop snowing or for weather forecasts.

But dispatchers say it’s frustrating when people dial 911 to ask how to cook a turkey, for someone’s telephone number or to get a report on road conditions.

“911 is just for emergencies. It’s not an information line,” Harris said.

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