Dispatchers' Skill Can Mean Life or Death

LARAMIE, Wyo. (AP) -- The phone rings at 6:01 p.m.

Chris Stout takes the call. Her shift has just ended, but that doesn't matter.

''Public safety dispatch, do you have an emergency?'' Stout asks.

On the other line, a woman named Kelsey says she has just witnessed a man fall off his bicycle near a trailer park. The man, who appears to be in his 40s, is lying on the ground and is slurring his words. She doesn't know what to do.

In a firm voice, Stout instructs Kelsey to ask the man if he is diabetic or has a heart condition. The man says something indecipherable. Stout doesn't wait for a translation. Instead, she dispatches police and EMTs to the scene.

Next, Stout asks for his name. It's Fred, and his last name starts with an ''H,'' Kelsey says. Stout immediately begins searching through a database of names until she finds someone named Fred who lives at the trailer park.

By now, sirens are blaring into the phone. Stout lets the medics take over and hangs up.

''What was wrong with him?'' an onlooker asks.

''Who knows? It could be that he was drunk,'' Stout says. ''Or maybe he has a medical problem.''

A few minutes later, Stout gets an answer.

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For more than two years now, Stout has worked as an emergency dispatcher for Laramie/Albany County Records and Communication (LARC). Hers is the first voice people hear when they call for help _ and sometimes the last.

Stout works with Yancey Brown, a fellow dispatcher. The duo works the same shifts: three 12-hour days and one six-hour day. In their world, there is no such thing as lunch break or holiday vacation _ everyone must work at least one weekend shift; holidays are actually workdays; and bathroom breaks are the only excuse for leaving the command center.

Dispatchers are always busy. And when they finally go home, work often follows.

''We usually don't find out what happened to these people,'' Brown says. ''We get a picture of what's going on, but we can never put a face to the name; we never see the scene. As soon as we hang up, that's it. Sometimes when I go home, I'm still thinking about it.''

Not all stories have happy endings.

''I had a woman on the other line whose husband had just had a heart attack,'' Stout says. ''She was doing CPR. I just started crying after it was over, because I knew he was dead.''

There are support groups for law enforcement and medical personnel, and Brown says he has attended some.

For Stout, the toughest calls involve frantic mothers. She recalls one incident where a baby had submerged in a bathtub and wasn't breathing. The mother called 911 and was hysterical, so Stout asked to speak with someone else in the room.

Together, they resuscitated the child.

''It's so hard to calm an upset mother,'' Stout says. ''You just have to lower your voice, and say, 'In order for me to help you, I need for you to take a deep breath.'''

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Every day, the center's dispatchers take some 500 to 750 calls.

''You could get four calls in one night, or you could get slammed,'' Brown says.

Like on Aug. 19, 2004, when seven people were killed and 29 were injured in a fiery chain-reaction collision on Interstate 80. Because the crash occurred in Albany County, all 911 calls were routed to LARC dispatchers.

''We handled 33 calls to 911 in less than two minutes,'' says Commander Dale Stalder, who manages LARC, who said dispatchers were taking calls while also calling off-duty police officers to help deal with the wreck.

The most common types of calls for service involve animal complaints, parking violations and thefts. Intermingled in those are suicides and medical emergencies. In each case, patience and control is a necessity.

''You need to take charge of every call that comes in,'' Brown says. ''Someone might be hysterical, but you need to get the information you need. The three essential questions we ask are: where, what and why.''

Brown and Stout have a straightforward way of talking about everything, even darker subjects like suicide. Usually, it's a female who threatens suicide over the phone. Men are less likely to seek help, Stout explains.

Most suicidal people are more than willing to share their personal problems with dispatchers.

''You have to show sympathy, but at the same time, try to get their minds off of suicide until someone arrives,'' Brown says. ''You say, 'OK, let's talk about it. Why do you feel this way?' You keep them talking until someone gets there.''

Brown remembers a call from a man who had killed his wife in Kansas. He fled to Wyoming with his 6-year-old daughter and eventually stopped his car in front of a rural driveway near Laramie.

''The deputy had his rifle pointed at the guy. Then the little girl got out of the car and walked up to him. He said, 'Where's your daddy?' She said, 'He walked right over there and shot himself in the head. He told me to run to you,''' Brown recalls.

Brown and another dispatcher watched over the girl while she waited for her grandparents to arrive. She scribbled a drawing for them in crayon, which hangs on the wall.

''I just kept thinking, 'Wow, she just watched dad kill mom, and then dad kill himself,''' Brown says. ''It's such a horrible thing to imagine.''

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It's 4:56 p.m. An older woman calls and says she has no place to sleep tonight. She sounds sweet and fragile as she explains that she is making a trip to see her son, but cannot afford a hotel room.

Stout tells the woman she qualifies for a voucher through Interfaith-Good Samaritan, which means she can stay overnight in a hotel for free. ''Thank you so much. God bless you,'' the woman says upon hearing the good news

It's times like these when Stout realizes how much she loves her job.

Not many people make it as far as Brown and Stout have. After going through background checks, polygraphs and psychological tests, dispatchers-in-training must attend eight to 12 weeks of rigorous classes. Only half make it through.

''It's not an indication of your intelligence if you don't make it,'' Stalder says. ''It's such a difficult job, because you must know how to multitask. It's not unusual for dispatchers to do five to six tasks at the same time.''

Those who do make it stay onboard for an average of five years before quitting.

''People have a misconception about this job,'' Stalder says. ''They don't understand all that there is to do. When they start to try to do it, they get overwhelmed. The technology is very complicated.''

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It's now 6:15 p.m. and the next shift has arrived. But Stout still hasn't left the building.

She's busy tying up loose ends involving the man who fell off his bicycle. Apparently, the man had a medical condition but didn't need to go to the hospital, she says.

At least she can go home now without wondering what happened to him, as she so often does.

''It's hard to walk out of here and leave everything behind,'' Stout says. ''The worst part about this job is that we don't know the end result of things unless we actively seek it out.''

Stout is just about to leave when the phone rings again. She answers.

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