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Recognizing public safety dispatchers

POSTED April 11, 2012 8:25 a.m.
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April 8-14 is the week for recognition of this nation's public safety dispatchers and the services they provide to our citizens and emergency services personnel. A few days of recognition is the least we can do for these professionals who work around the clock taking care of the people in their communities.

It is ironic that some of the most important jobs in our society are often ones that receive the least amount of recognition. Ambulance personnel, school teachers, workers who attend to individuals with special needs, hospice employees, nurses and public safety dispatchers all fall into this category. They work largely out of view of the public eye, and are therefore not visible in the same way police and fire personnel are, dispatchers are probably the least recognized out of all of the positions involved in the emergency services system. The functions they perform are probably the least known as well. The pay for these underappreciated positions does not even come close to matching the skills required and demands placed upon them. Yet they fulfill an absolutely indispensable role in getting emergency workers to the scene of any urgent or emergency event. The system cannot function without them.

Public safety dispatchers do not just simply transfer information from victims and witnesses to field personnel. They are specially trained to help keep panic-stricken or terrified people calm while using skills and experience to extract critical information from people who are sick, dying, injured, under attack or otherwise experiencing a whole range of different kinds of emergencies. The training itself is not enough; dispatchers must possess the ability to think and act very clearly while under tremendous pressure and having to carry out multiple tasks simultaneously. Dispatchers must have above-average intelligence, a high degree of emotional stability and an almost endless capacity for experiencing some of the worst situations that occur in our society.

Dispatchers also have to know how to deal with young kids. They encounter dozens of different languages and dialects, and must be able to perform all of these functions while simultaneously conducting computer searches, entering call information and related data, looking at maps, and dispatching the appropriate resources. And if that is not enough, dispatchers must be able to enter information into computers while at the same time speaking to a caller with an emergency, listening and replying to radio traffic from multiple agencies and dealing with other interruptions from co-workers or safety personnel requesting information for their reports. Only a remarkably small percentage of the population are able to master these skills, and just one minor informational mistake can lead to imperiling the lives of victims and emergency field crews.

Those who choose this profession see it not as a just a job, but as a calling. The pay does not compensate for the stress, the terrible hours and lack of recognition associated with the job. These people are truly unsung heroes who are driven by the fact that they make a real difference in society, and it is the intrinsic rewards of the job, not the compensation, that gives them reason to stay with it.

The City of Ceres has more than 45,000 people living here. Our dispatchers handle approximately 250-350 calls for service every 24 hours. All incoming and outgoing phone calls handled during a 24-hour period can exceed 1,000. At the same time, dispatchers are responding to field units' radio traffic. Unfortunately, some members of the public have come to view the 911 Emergency Dispatch Center as an information resource for routine matters like getting directions, phone numbers or asking the address of a business or residence. When dispatch is called for inappropriate, non-emergency matters, it compromises the efficiency of the operation and actually can add to the potential for problems when dispatchers are handling urgent or emergency calls.

For safety and security purposes, dispatchers' quarters are located away from exterior walls, so they cannot see outside the building, except for images on monitors from various remote cameras. While they may hear screams over the phone of someone being victimized or injured, they are left to their imaginations about what is really happening. In effect, with the exception of hearing, their senses are cut off from the emergencies in which they fulfill a critical role. It is difficult from a practical and emotional sense.

Not unlike what sometimes happens to fire, police, and military personnel, emergency services dispatchers are subject to experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This can happen as a result of cumulative stress and emotional trauma from frequent exposure to human suffering and drama. Similarly, a single event, like handling communications when an officer gets killed, the death of a child, or experiencing a person's suicide over the phone in spite of everything the dispatcher tried to do can have deep and lasting emotional consequences.

In instances where a police officer makes a traffic stop and fails to reply to the dispatcher's "security check" calls, it always makes for tense moments that jump-start their adrenaline and provoke their worst fears that the officer may have been injured or killed. Fortunately, most of these are false alarms, but they take their toll on the dispatchers who often feel a certain affinity and sense of closeness with those they send into the many life-threatening, dangerous situations.

Dispatchers are truly an exceptional breed, deserving of so much more than we can pay, or the amount of gratitude we can show them. They are extraordinary people, who, from moment-to-moment, must serve as psychologists, strategists, multi-taskers, emergency medical coaches, secretaries, counselors and pastors. They richly deserve the one week dedicated to them each year. I am proud of our dispatchers, and of the profession as a whole. I can only thank God for having made people who have the skills, personality and selfless commitment to perform such a difficult job for our society.
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