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Honoring emergency dispatchers
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It is ironic that some of the most important jobs in our society are often ones that receive the least amount of recognition. Often the pay for these underappreciated positions does not come close to matching the skills required and demands placed upon the individuals in them. To name a few: ambulance personnel, school teachers, workers who attend to individuals with special needs, hospice employees, and public safety dispatchers all fall into this category.

April 10-16 was National Dispatchers' Week, in recognition of the importance of the support these professionals provide to the public, fire, police and emergency medical personnel.

In terms of the emergency services system, which generally includes fire, police, emergency medical personnel and dispatchers, the dispatchers are the least recognized. The functions they perform are probably the least known as well, 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.

While many people figure that dispatchers simply transfer information from callers to field personnel, they, in fact do so much more. 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 also have to know how to deal with young kids, 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, and dispatching the appropriate resources. And if all of that is not enough, dispatchers must be able to key 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 very 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 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.

As an example of the dispatchers' workload, Ceres has about 45,000 inhabitants. Ceres dispatchers handle approximately 250-350 calls for service every 24 hours. All phone calls combined 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 that happens 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 therefore cannot see outside the building, except for images on monitors from various remote cameras. 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, 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 they send into the many life-threatening, dangerous situations.

Dispatchers are truly a special 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.