Dispatchers' Skill Can Mean Life or Death

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


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.