Long hours, emotional calls and lost of humor are all part of being
a 911 dispatcher
An AP West Virginia Member Exchange
By ERIN L. NISSLEY
The Journal of Martinsburg
MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - A typed sentence taped unobtrusively onto
one of the Berkeley County 911 consoles pretty much sums it up:
"There is no such thing as a routine call."
That philosophy keeps Berkeley County Central dispatchers coming
back to work, no matter how boring or busy their last shift might
have been.
"When you walk through the front door, you never know what's
going to happen," said Kim Wiegand, a dispatcher for the past
three years. "And just when you start to think 'Why am I doing
this,' you get that call that turns out real well."
In the middle of talking about her beginnings as a dispatcher,
Wiegand handles a call coming in on one of the emergency lines
around 5:07 p.m. She's greeted by a sobbing teen-age girl, her
words almost unintelligible.
"Listen to me. I can't understand you if you're crying,"
Wiegand said in a calm voice. The teen tearfully explained there
was a drunken man at their house and he was threatening them.
"Who is the person there who's beating on your mom," the
dispatcher asks. "Where is he now?"
In the background, a man and a woman are shouting. The teen
calms down, seeming to respond to Wiegand's soothing voice, and
tells her the man is now outside. The state police are on their way
and Wiegand tells the teen to make sure all the doors and windows
are locked so the man can't get back inside.
The call is just one of the many tense, scary moments
dispatchers defuse every day. According to veteran dispatcher Linda
Ferguson, who has worked for Berkeley County Central Dispatch for
15 years, it takes a certain kind of person to do this job every
day.
"I've seen a lot of people come and go," she said. "People
who are here are the types that can cope with emergencies. Those
who can't - leave."
Dispatcher Brad Wright agrees. He's been answering calls since
February, making him the newest addition to the dozen dispatchers
that rotate shifts.
"It's not a job anyone can do," Wright said. "You really have
to be cut out for this."
Ferguson said she got her job because her sons played sports
with the current 911 Director Mary Kackley's son. When Kackley
found out Ferguson was searching for a job, she encouraged her to
put in an application. A decade and a half later, she said she
enjoys the "behind the scenes work" of answering 911 calls,
checking information for officers and directing police and rescue
workers to emergency scenes.
In order to be hired, applicants must be 18 and have at least a
high school diploma or a GED, according to Kackley. They'll begin
at Central Dispatch by taking training classes offered by
Dispatch's certified training officers. After a week or so, new
dispatchers can answer the non-emergency lines and ease their way
into handling emergency calls after becoming familiar with the
computer equipment and training manual, Kackley said.
Dispatchers agree it's usually feast or famine during their
shifts. As Wiegand gets an address and phone number for someone
calling to report a reckless driver, Lori Braner jots down a
license plate number radioed in by an officer and enters it into a
computer. A few seconds later, she leans in toward the microphone.
"OK," she said. "I have some information for you."
As soon as she finishes sharing information with the officer,
the alarm line lights up. A phone line dedicated solely to burglar,
fire and emergency alarms from residences and businesses, Braner
takes down directions to a home from an alarm company dispatcher
and then pulls up a map of Berkeley County on her computer.
"It really helps if people know their new addresses," she
said. "When they do, we can find them quicker."
Most of the calls on Friday afternoon were for controlled burns.
As the evening fades, Ferguson eyes the clock and comments
"After 8 p.m., things can really pick up."
But there's no rhyme or reason to when shifts will get busy and
when they'll drag on, dispatchers said.
"Sometimes on midnight shift, you can't steal or borrow a
call," Wiegand said. "And then on day shift, you'll be swamped."
The end of Braner's shift rolls around and she gets up from her
desk and carefully folds her headset and places it in a cardboard
box. Using an anti-bacterial wipe, she disinfects her work area, to
make room for Wright, who is starting his shift.
Braner said photos of her family help her get through an
especially rough shift. That, along with a healthy dose of humor,
keeps the stress level down.
"What we do is so serious," Wiegand said. "When we're not on
the phone dealing with an emergency, we try to have fun. We goof
around and have a good time, but we can snap back and do our job
when the phone rings."
Another way dispatchers beat the stress of their job? Talking
about difficult calls among themselves.
"If you keep it to yourself," Wright said, "you won't last
long."
Ferguson said it helps to discuss the difficult calls with her
co-workers. Wiegand admits there have been times that she's "sat
on the console and choked back tears" as she took a call.
"Part of our training is to handle the call and get ready for
the next one," Ferguson said. "We can't let one call stop us from
handling the second."
Dispatchers also try to leave work at work and not dwell on
calls after their shift ends, said Ferguson. According to Kackley,
learning to deal with the often-stressful job comes with
experience.
"Yes, it's stressful. But at the same time, it's
exhilarating," Kackley said. "You learn to accept that certain
things are beyond your control. You just do your job."
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Distributed by The Associated Press