Recovery

Erie County 911 Center Staff Lean on Each Other to Thrive Under Pressure

'It can go from zero to 100. It just depends on what time you pick up the phone and who you get.'

by Ron Leonardi, Erie Times-News, Pa. / April 9, 2018

(TNS) - As a little girl, Lindsay Weidler knew she wanted to pursue a profession where helping people was paramount.

She often thought her life's plan would involve becoming a registered nurse in labor delivery.

"That's what I wanted to do, but this is like a whole different ballgame,'' said Weidler, a public safety telecommunicator at the Erie County, Pa., 911 Center on Flower Road in Summit Township and a firefighter with the Lake City Fire Company.

On any day, whether she is serving as a call taker, dispatcher or acting shift commander, Weidler, 27, still gets to enjoy her goal of helping others.

From her work station inside the dispatch center of the county's 25,000-square-foot 911 Center, she hears just about every malady known to society when she is handling call-taking duties.

There are calls for domestic disturbances, reports of theft or robbery, fall victims, leg pain, vomiting, cardiac arrest, heroin overdoses, shootings, stabbings, assaults, fires, fights, disturbances, and motor vehicle crashes.

"It can go from zero to 100," Weidler said. "It just depends on what time you pick up the phone and who you get. There are times where it's literally the worst day of a caller's life and then it can be difficult to deal with, but you can't take it home with you."

During the second week in April each year, the nation's public safety telecommunication personnel are honored for their dedication and service through National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week. It was established in 1981 by the Contra Costa County Sheriff's Office in California.

"I would hope that the nation would recognize the telecommunicators for the hard work they do," said Megan Whitby, a 911 Center second-shift commander. "It's a stressful job. They miss family events and vacations to help the community. Some work eight-hour shifts, some are 12-hour shifts, some are 16-hour shifts. People don't know that they even exist sometimes. They're the guy or girl on the phone. I hope the public would see we go through extensive training and we're here to help them."

Public safety telecommunicators are often referred to as the "first" first responders because they process and assess the initial emergency call and send various emergency services to a location based on the nature of the call.

Saegertown resident Maggie Bowser, 28, a telecommunicator with the Erie County Department of Public Safety for the past 1½ years, says every day is different.

As a call-taker, hearing the raw emotion of people sometimes in the worst moments of their lives can be difficult.

"I can't reach through the phone and say, 'Hey, it's going to be OK,'" Bowser said.

Telecommunicators must remain calm and maintain their composure and professionalism, no matter how stressful the situation.

"The biggest part of the job is not making somebody else's emergency your emergency," 911 Center telecommunicator Jackie Polka said. "We've heard gunshots or a stabbing. There have been a lot of suicidal calls where you can hear bullets hitting the ground and people loading their guns. It's very stressful. You want to help, but you're not there. You can only help so much over the phone. It doesn't always go the way we want it to go, but at least we know we did everything that we could over the phone."

Polka, 29, a Millcreek Township resident, has been a telecommunicator for the past five years.

"There's different sides to the job," she said. "I've delivered babies over the phone, and that is quite the miracle. It kind of makes the job all the more worth it and it overcomes the bad stuff."

Some days, Polka leaves at the end of her shift feeling really good because she helped a lot of people.

"It's very positively impacting on your life to be able to help people, and that's why I'm here, really," Polka said.

"Then there's other days where it's the exact opposite where you don't feel like you helped anybody," Weidler said. "It's just people screaming at you all day long. You shouldn't let it get to you. They're having a bad day and they don't know you. But still, it kind of stinks."

What constitutes a bad day for a public telecommunicator varies, but it usually centers on the nature of the call.

"I've had family members die in car accidents, so sometimes when I hear that, it like gets to me, and anything with children," Bowser said. "Some fights are really bad and people are really scared. You can tell when people are really scared and they don't know what to do. That's hard. Major incidents are hard to hear, like when somebody walks in and finds their loved one dead. They don't know what to do.

"There are times when I've heard shots fired over the phone, and it's like I freak out, but they can't tell that I'm freaking out," Bowser said. "They don't hear that because your training kicks in."

In 2017, the Summit Township 911 Center averaged 439 calls every 24-hour cycle. The center received 160,057 calls in 2017, according to John Grappy, the county's public safety director.

Shifts run from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. and 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. Each shift is staffed by a minimum of a shift supervisor and nine telecommunicators (three fire dispatchers, three police dispatchers, three call takers).

Some telecommunicators perform call-taking duties. Other are dispatchers. They dispatch fire, police and medical calls. Their work is evaluated by the shift commander.

"They are consummate professionals and are willing to help each other out," 911 Center shift commander Jeff McFadden said of the third-shift telecommunicators he oversees nightly. "Nobody on third shift is on their own. There's always someone available to ask for help. I've always been impressed with the teamwork of the crew."

Mike Fuhrman, a 27-year-old Erie resident, has spent the past 13 months learning the telecommunication profession.

"It's been a doozy," he said. Fuhrman just recently started dispatch duties after spending his first year primarily as a call taker.

"It can be stressful," Fuhrman said. "You have to have a strong mindset with it. I show sympathy but I don't show sympathy. I don't get too emotional over calls. I'll get over a call fairly quickly, which helps in this job, because you can go from someone having a baby to a homicide in a matter of minutes."

"There are days we do a lot of CPR instruction over the phone," Polka said. "We instruct callers on how to do it. A lot of time people are in full cardiac arrest and when the ambulance gets there, they're back."

Telecommunicators deal with the daily stress differently.

"I don't think this job is for everyone, and I think we have a great group of people here who have what it takes to be here and deal with it every single day," Weidler said. "We come in knowing that something is going to happen today, and I'm going to need to make the quickest decisions of my life because it's going to affect their life every day. We're here every day to help."

Whitby said the daily stress impacts staff in different ways.

"The crews hear yelling, name-calling, people dying, people crying because there is somebody dead in their house," Whitby said. "We have counseling available. We have each other. Some take an extra break, some of us smoke. We get through it. It's like one big family here working together for the same goal of helping the community of Erie County."

Ron Leonardi can be reached at 870-1680 or by e-mail. Follow him on Twitter at www.Twitter.com/ETNLeonardi.

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