Multitasking: Matter of life and death for Idaho dispatchers
Dispatchers spend their shifts assisting police, helping those in emergencies, keeping track of all emergency responders
By Ruth Brown
The Idaho Falls Post Register
IDAHO FALLS, Idaho — A dimly lit room with ringing phones, flashing lights and beeping radios is where Idaho Falls dispatchers help save lives.
In a span of two hours on a Friday night last month, four Idaho Falls dispatchers spent their evening assisting police, helping those in emergencies and keeping track of all emergency responders.
The Idaho Falls dispatch center takes 911 calls and dispatches emergency responders for Idaho Falls, Bonneville County, Ucon and Iona.
A phone rings and seconds later, a dispatcher answers: "911. Where is your emergency?"
The dispatcher then asks the caller a series of questions, in even and controlled tones. That same dispatcher also is updating police, EMTs and firefighters and still manages to keep the once-frantic caller calm.
Shift supervisor DaNell Hennis has worked in the dispatch center for three years. The most important quality in a dispatcher, she said, is the ability to multitask. Dispatchers juggle fire, medical, criminal and administrative calls and assist responding officers.
"You may be on the radio and on the phone at the same time, and you have to be able to know what both people are saying to you and be able to take care of it," Hennis said. "When you have bigger incidents, you have to be able to work together in the room."
Dispatchers are responsible for knowing where every on-duty officer is at all times. They update a seemingly never-ending database with information that emergency responders may need to know.
That database includes things such as a suspect's criminal history, whether someone holds a weapons permit, gang involvement, outstanding warrants, identifying marks such as tattoos and scars, and other personal information.
"All of these things paint a picture for our officer when they arrive on scene," Hennis said.
The average Idaho Falls dispatcher takes about 12,000 calls a year. In 2011, the dispatch center answered a combined total of about 275,000 calls.
While working for dispatch, the calls and police requests coming in during a shift leave most dispatchers with at least a few bold memories.
A call that Hennis can't forget ended in the death of an infant.
A Madison County woman called because the infant wasn't breathing. Idaho Falls dispatchers are trained to give instruction on CPR, and Hennis talked the woman through the process.
"I stayed on the line with her for 17 minutes doing CPR," Hennis said. "Her baby didn't make it. (At the time) I had a baby that was almost the same age."
But Hennis said anytime she does help save someone, it makes the job worth it. She has done CPR with someone on the phone and the person lived.
"That's quite rewarding," she said.
Seven-year dispatch veteran Monique Campbell also shared some stories.
During her first year on the job, Campbell said, she spent 40 minutes on the phone with a man who was watching his lifelong friend die after a motorcycle accident.
"He was so far out in the county," Campbell said. "It was on some dirt road and he was riding with his friend. That was hard because you had to hear the connection they had and the crying."
But the key to dealing with such a situation is keeping your own emotions in control, Campbell said.
"There's been times when people will call in and they're so frantic or upset that it's easy to take it and be frantic with them," Campbell said. "It takes a lot of training and separation."
But Campbell also has received joyful calls - she once talked a woman through delivering a baby on her front porch.
"Those are really fun calls because there is such excitement after (from the caller)," she said.
Children sometimes are the most cooperative callers, she said.
They take direction, don't involve emotion and are much more "frank" than adults.
A.J. Bryson, a four-year dispatcher, said she thinks empathy is the most important quality a dispatcher can possess.
"To be able to react to the people on the phone properly and be able to make them believe that you care about what's going on is important," Bryson said. "A lot of people just need help and they need to think someone cares about what their situation is."
"People are calling us at the worst possible time," she said. "It's the worst time in their entire life and they call us. And it's our job to fix it."
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