Emergency Services Agency Dispatchers Use Tech, Situational Awareness to Help in Emergencies

“This is a really odd workplace. I’ll be sitting there having a conversation with someone, and one seat away, someone’s doing CPR,” Gaylord said. “It goes on all day long, right? It’s a little weird when new people come in and see that, because they’re like, ‘Oh my God, there’s a life-and-death situation going on right now!’

by Calley Hair, The Columbian, Vancouver, Wash. / December 11, 2018

(TNS) - John Gaylord, shift supervisor at the county’s emergency dispatch center, is caught in a moment of crisis. Or, as he would call it, a moment.

“911, can I help you?”

A caller was sitting with a cyclist who had been struck by a vehicle in a hit-and run. Gaylord ticked down his list of questions and instructions: “Where are you? Is he alert? Is he breathing? Bleeding? Don’t move him if you can avoid it. Keep your head on a swivel. Help is on the way.”

Gaylord has been an emergency dispatcher with Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency, or CRESA, for nearly 30 years. He’s hard to rattle.

“If not explained correctly, it’s coarse and callous,” he said, sipping on a diet cranberry ginger ale Thursday afternoon. The six screens in front of him — seven, if you count his supervisor’s iPhone — are constantly flashing and changing, updating him on the movement happening across the county in real time.

“You have a job to do. You don’t have time to think about being stressed,” he said.

One of those screens cuts him off and starts flashing a red and blue circle stamped with “911.” His phone is ringing, and off he goes again, this time dealing with an abandoned vehicle causing a nuisance.

CRESA dispatchers have a weird job. They’re less publicly recognizable than, say, police officers or firefighters, but they’re the first line of defense in any kind of emergency. Their entire day is spent in an office, fielding calls from people experiencing life-defining moments and connecting them with resources that could save their lives or homes.

They sometimes spend their 10-hour shifts pumped with adrenaline. The surreal thing, Gaylord said, is that you get used to it.

“This is a really odd workplace. I’ll be sitting there having a conversation with someone, and one seat away, someone’s doing CPR,” Gaylord said. “It goes on all day long, right? It’s a little weird when new people come in and see that, because they’re like, ‘Oh my God, there’s a life-and-death situation going on right now!’ But that’s every day for people here, so it doesn’t stop the normal life.”

Growing, evolving

It’s a busy time of year to be an emergency dispatcher. Winter means the holidays, which means fielding a lot of calls about stolen packages and family disputes. It’s also a time that sees an uptick in callers grappling with suicide, either through thoughts or actions in themselves or loved ones.

“There’s some call types that probably escalate a bit more during this time,” said Kris DeVore, operations manager at CRESA.

Altogether, the dispatch center fields about a half-million calls per year. Most come in between 9 a.m. and 11 p.m.

“We’re staffed heavier during those chunks of the day to meet that higher volume, but of course, you’re never going to gauge exactly what the traffic is that’s coming in,” DeVore said.

The average shift sees between 30 and 70 calls, but there’s no way to predict how the day is going to go — in a 30-minute stretch around 5 a.m. a couple of weeks ago, the phone rang 54 times, she said.

Much of DeVore’s job comes down to using the center’s resources as efficiently and effectively as possible, from both a personnel and technology standpoint.

The technology has changed in recent years — in most ways, for the better. But there are pros and cons to every new tool CRESA implements, and it’s up to the dispatchers to maximize their advantages in each individual case.

Take text-to-911. It’s a less efficient form of communication, but it has its uses.

“Our message is, call if you can, text if you can’t,” DeVore said. “It’s basically if you have a safety issue. Say you’re a child in a closet and someone’s in your house, texting us would be the way to go.”

The widespread nature of cellphones comes with its own set of advantages and challenges. Landlines are easy to trace. Cellphones require a bit more finagling, but under the right circumstances, can provide an extremely accurate location.

“When somebody calls in from a cellphone, it’s hitting off the tower so we don’t get a defined location,” DeVore said. “We will do what’s called a retransmit to narrow down to the tower closer, then it goes within what we call a confidence level, a radius of the tower.”

That radius can be anywhere from 5 yards to a quarter-mile — not very helpful in an urban environment. But around a year ago, the center quietly implemented RapidSOS technology, fundamentally the same technology that helps your Uber driver pick you up or your GrubHub delivery show up at your doorstep.

“It used to be an app you had to install,” DeVore said. But with recent iOS and Android updates, most smart phones have RapidSOS capabilities automatically.

“It narrows it down to a closer location that’s a lot more accurate than any of the other pieces that we have. The hang-up, though, is do you have the software installed on your phone?” DeVore said.

Ultimately, it’s just one tool in a vast and varied toolbox, and it doesn’t replace good old-fashioned situational awareness.

“There’s things that we’ve inherited that aren’t helpful that we’ve had to work around. We’ve had it for a year, but we didn’t broadcast it because we want people to know their location,” DeVore said.

Finding community

Dispatchers spend their days swinging between extremes, sampling the worst and best of humanity in rapid succession.

Crisa McClellan, who’s been a CRESA dispatcher for three years, recounted her best day on the job: A woman called in, panicked about her choking son. Just as McClellan was about to walk the caller through the Heimlich maneuver, she realized that the woman was talking about a dog.

“So I Googled it,” McClellan laughed. “WikiHow was like, ‘If it’s choking on food, pretend to give it a treat to get it to swallow,’ and it worked.” The golden retriever lived to fetch another day.

The adrenaline is addictive, Gaylord said. The fast-paced problem-solving is a lot of fun. But it can sometimes be a little isolating.

“People always ask me that: ‘What’s your best call? What’s your worst call?’ And I kind of have an amalgam of calls that I’ve taken that I (turn into) one call for them, because there’s just so much stuff,” he said. “And really, they don’t want to know what the worst call is. They really don’t, so you come up with something that they can consume and be shocked by, but not really be shocked by the reality of what the worst call can be.”

There’s community to be found at work, though. McClellan just got back from a trans-European road trip with a friend at the police department.

She likes to get to know the community’s first responders and is working with a contact at the Clark County Sheriff’s Office to develop a support group for “the calls that get to you,” she said.

“Putting a face to the name helps me remember that all of these numbers are humans,” McClellan said, gesturing to a screen listing the firefighters, medics and police officers out on call. “The No. 1 goal is to make sure that when I’m done, all of my guys and gals get home to their dogs at night.”

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