Preparedness & Recovery

911 Center a Critical Link to Public Safety

'They’re the first on scene even though they’re not physically there, and the quality of your response often starts with a skilled 911 dispatcher.'

by Mary Cloud Taylor, Daily Inter Lake, Kalispell, Mont. / June 11, 2018

(TNS) - Imagine a job that involves managing the worst day of someone’s life dozens of times every day. Answering phone calls from scared or angry people for 10 hours or more at a time and coordinating a rapid response from multiple agencies. One mistake or misstep could have potentially fatal consequences.

This is the job description of a 911 dispatcher.

“They are a critical link in the public safety chain that is often overlooked because they’re not driving police cars or fire trucks,” said Flathead Emergency Communications Center Director Elizabeth Brooks. “They’re the first responders. They’re the first on scene even though they’re not physically there, and the quality of your response often starts with a skilled 911 dispatcher.”

However, the voice answering the phone belongs to a human being, one that must find a way to handle every crisis that occurs within their community.

“Some of the ugly things that dispatchers deal with day to day are just having to manage the tragedies of others. Nobody calls 911 because they’re having a good day,” Brooks said.

Every emergency responder knows the importance of leaving the job at work, but according dispatch supervisor Kristina Kvapil, each dispatcher has certain triggers, certain types of calls that stick with them and add up.

For some, she said, it’s children or animals. For others, it’s motorcycle accidents or mental illnesses.

“You know, it’s not one particularly bad call that gets dispatchers,” said Luwanna Jensen, a longtime dispatcher. “It’s cumulative, so it becomes the straw that breaks the camel’s back.”

Jensen met her straw at the end of a shift one evening in February last year, when she answered what she thought would be her last call for the night.

On the other end, a woman expressed a desire to harm herself, listing a myriad of problems that had caused her to lose hope.

As Jensen tried to calm the woman and let her know she was dispatching a sheriff’s deputy to come speak with her in person, the woman took an unexpected turn.

“Listen to this,” the woman said. A loud bang erupted in Jensen’s ear as the woman ended her life on the other end of the line.

“Your brain can only handle so much trauma at a time,” Jensen said, “and her suicide about did me in. I wasn’t in great shape for a while.”

Not long after, she began dreaming about that phone call.

“I kept wanting to change that moment, that moment in time when she ended it,” Jensen said. “And of course I can’t. There’s no way to do that, but your brain wants to fix it.”

That spring, around the time when Jensen said she was beginning to recover from the incident, both her son and daughter-in-law were hit and killed in a motorcycle accident right in front of her.

Despite the accumulation of trauma, Jensen returned to the 911 Center, and in July, she worked 23 days straight without a day off.

“By August, I thought A) I was going to lose my mind and B) I was quitting, I was done,” Jensen said. But she stayed.

The call volume began to drop after Labor Day, she met with a therapist to help cope with her loss, and eventually, she said, the dreams stopped.

“It’s my job. It’s what I do,” Jensen said. “We were so shorthanded at that point. I couldn’t just abandon the people in this room. I need the job. I have to work.”

“So you suck it up and keep going,” she added.

For nearly 12 years now, Jensen has served as a 911 dispatcher, and it’s been her coworkers, she said, who have played a major part in keeping her going.

“We’re a pretty tight family in here,” she said. “In many ways we socialize together, and a lot of that is because we understand each other.”

Most of the dispatchers at the center agreed that their coworkers become a lifeline when they find it hard to keep going and can’t share their problems with their families and friends.

“It’s easy for any human being that’s exposed to stressful experiences to internalize that and perhaps not even realize that they’re taking it out on those close to them or that they are not enjoying some of the things they usually enjoy because of that extra load they’re carrying,” Brooks said.

Each individual dispatcher must find ways to cope with the stress and trauma they encounter, whether by utilizing the resources provided by the center, leaning on the support of coworkers or diving into healthy forms of stress relief before returning to work to do it all over again.

“Unfortunately, about 2 to 7 percent of the population can do this,” Jensen said. “And sometimes I don’t do it very well either.”

For a job that requires employees to work up to 14-hour shifts, memorize the protocol for handling thousands of potential emergencies and maintain focus while multitasking at the highest level for hours with limited bathroom breaks, Lisa Warner, one of the lead dispatchers, said, “it does really take a special breed of person.”

“I’ve had people call me some horrible things, but again, I don’t take it personal. They’re having a bad day. They just want to yell at someone, and it just so happens that that someone is me,” Warner said.

After three years in dispatch, Warner said she tries to remember the good stuff.

One call that she’s kept with her came in around a year and a half ago. A frantic father called 911 when his toddler son started choking on an unknown object.

The boy was unresponsive and beginning to turn blue as Warner attempted to get the needed information out of his parents. Was he breathing? What was he choking on? Where were they?

She dispatched the nearest responders to the scene and began giving instructions over the phone to the terrified dad on how to perform the Heimlich and CPR on his son until officers could get there.

“Then all of a sudden in the background I could hear him crying and it was the greatest noise of your life,” Warner said.

Then, she said, as the father realized the danger had passed, he started to cry, thanking Warner profusely before hanging up.

Warner said she began to tear up too as she realized she had just saved that child’s life.

Seconds after end that call, however, the phone rang again, and she was on to next call.

“911, what’s the address of your emergency?”

The pace of a day can shift in an instant at the 911 Center. After a day of radio silence, all five dispatchers in the center might suddenly find themselves juggling three calls at once while trying to dispatch the appropriate responders to each location, communicate with other dispatchers, keep up with the radio traffic and get all the necessary information from panicked, frustrated and sometimes rude callers.

One unanswered question, one mistyped bit of information can mean the difference between a successful response and disaster.

“No pressure,” Warner said.

Jensen added that budget cuts and staffing shortages at the 911 Center can add to the stress, especially at the height of summer when the Flathead Valley’s population swells.

“We’ll be at full pool in this county and we’re still doing it in here with five people, and that’s what most people don’t get.”

“When there’s five people in here, that’s one person answering all the 911 lines, all the admin lines for all the agencies for the entire county, which our county is the size of a small state,” Warner added.

Despite the growing population and call volume of the center’s nearly 5,300-square-mile service area, the 911 Board cut two full-time and one part-time dispatch positions last year due to funding issues, further crippling the agency’s ability to cater to the needs of current dispatchers.

“It’s easy to get down when you feel like you don’t have everything you need to provide the services that responders in the field and the public need,” Brooks said. “And of course with that comes overtime and heavier workloads.”

Though the job may not be easy, according to Warner, it is simple.

“In all honesty, it doesn’t matter what kind of call it is, they called for help and you’re helping them,” Warner said.

Reporter Mary Cloud Taylor can be reached at 758-4459 or mtaylor@dailyinterlake.com.


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