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Dispatchers a special breed
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April 13-19 is National Dispatchers' Week, a dedication to those who work around the clock to answer emergency phone calls and provide dispatch services for police, fire and emergency medical services.

Dispatchers are, perhaps, the least recognized personnel in the emergency services delivery system. Yet, they fulfill an absolutely critical link between the public they serve and emergency services personnel. Without dispatchers, our system would become essentially non-functional. And these personnel do not simply transfer information between callers and emergency 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. Occasionally a dispatcher will take a call in which a distraught person calls to say that they are going to commit suicide, only to hear a gunshot and the subsequent thud as the victim falls to the floor.

Dispatchers also have to know how to deal with young kids, and they encounter dozens of different languages and dialects and they must be able to perform all of these functions while simultaneously conducting computer searches, entering call information and related data.

It is not unusual for a dispatcher to be keying information into computers while listening to an emergency phone call and monitoring radio traffic from fire, police and ambulance units. I sometimes joke with the dispatchers about their having "ambidextrous" ears. These employees can truly multi-task in a way that few people can ever master - all in the context of a life-safety environment - and they must perform with perfection, mistake and emotion-free. Minds cannot wander and being tired is no excuse for the dispatchers who must remain extraordinarily focused on their duties during almost every minute of their shifts.

The dispatching profession is not well-paid. Those who choose to do this job see it as a calling - not a job. The pay does not compensate for the stress, lousy hours and lack of recognition associated with the job. These people are truly unsung heroes who find the intrinsic rewards of the job to be the true compensation for it.

In Ceres, we have about 45,000 inhabitants. Ceres dispatchers handle approximately 250-350 calls every 24 hours. At the same time, they 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. These activities fall on top of the already busy environment in which dispatchers work.

Another difficulty of the job is that the dispatchers' environment is usually an isolated room filled with electronic equipment. They cannot see outside the building, except for seeing images from various remote cameras. But while they may hear screams over the phone of someone victimized or injured, they are left to their imaginations about what is really happening. In effect, and 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. 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 who they send into the many life-threatening, dangerous situations.

Dispatchers are truly a special breed, deserving of so much more 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, therapists or pastors. I am proud of our dispatchers. I thank God for having made people who have the skills, personality and selfless commitment to perform such a difficult job for society.