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‘Every day is different': Ala. county dispatchers reflect on 911 improvements and challenges

Morgan County 911 dispatchers describe the rewards and challenges that come with the job

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Morgan County 911/Facebook

By David Gambino
The Decatur Daily

MORGAN COUNTY, Ala. — Halfway between Decatur and Hartselle, a small team of 911 dispatchers answer 230,000 emergency calls per year for Morgan County’s 34 law enforcement, fire and EMS agencies. They work 12-hour shifts. There’s mandatory overtime. And every time the phones ring — and they ring incessantly — it could be anything on the other line: a complaint about an incorrect McDonald’s order, a cat stuck in a tree or, on the other end of the spectrum, the raw anguish of a family desperately seeking to save their dying child.

It’s a task that’s largely out of sight and out of mind for the public and, as such, often thankless. The pay isn’t good. Stress and trauma are guaranteed. Why do it?

“If I were to leave the world today, I know that I’ve made a difference,” said Samantha Sanders, Morgan County 911’s training and statistical analyst. “I know that I’ve saved lives. I know that I’ve left a legacy.”

The Decatur Daily caught up with Sanders, Director Jeanie Pharis and other dispatchers during National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week ( April 14-20 ). Pharis, who has 28 years of experience, walked us through the nitty-gritty of the operations center from the seat of a dispatcher’s station. Each station is equipped with seven display monitors and two phones. Strong multitasking skills are a necessity.

“We have a computer system that manages all of our incoming calls, and our dispatching comes with a mapping system that helps us locate callers, as well as responders — a lot of them have automatic vehicle locators,” Pharis said. Dispatchers, using software called RapidSOS, can pinpoint the location of incoming calls within 20-30 feet of the caller. If the caller is in a moving vehicle, dispatchers can track the movement in real time.

It wasn’t always this way.

“Your Uber driver used to be able to find out where you were better than your 911 person,” Pharis said. Other recent advancements for dispatch centers include text-to-911. “We can send texts, too.”

For example, last month, Morgan County 911 sent a text to a 19-year-old who was allegedly kidnapped from his home in Decatur and taken to Arab. Arab police were able to find and rescue the victim within minutes.

The industry has changed in other ways since Pharis was a rookie.

“Mental health and 911 has only become a thing probably in the past, I would say, two, three, four years or so,” she said. “Before that, there was no consideration of the mental impact of what this job does to you.”

911 dispatchers are classified as a “clerical occupation” under the Bureau of Labor Statistics, rather than as a “protective occupation” such as police, firefighters and other first responders. Advocates have tried for years to pass the 911 SAVES Act through the U.S. House and Senate that would reclassify 911 dispatchers as first responders. If passed, the reclassification would bring new funding opportunities and expanded access to mental health support for dispatchers.

“Right now, I can’t file for a lot of grants, because we’re not considered emergency responders,” Pharis said. “So, there’s a lot of benefits to that (legislation).”

Still, Morgan County 911 has taken steps to support the mental health of its dispatchers: They contract with a local company called Eagle Counseling and offer peer support.

“When we have new hires, we have one of the counselors come in here and spend a little bit of time talking to them about their mental health,” Pharis said. “We’re trying to promote an environment where it’s OK to want to talk to someone. We have them on call. If something traumatic happens, then we can call them, and they’ll come up here.”

Sometimes, Pharis said, dispatchers prefer to speak with one of two peer support employees, since they already share rapport and an understanding of the job.

“I am the result, sometimes, of not having those resources available,” she said. “I kind of look at it as: I don’t want my people here, and especially the people that we’re bringing into the field, to turn into me, or have the damage — for lack of a better term — from so many years of doing this.”

‘It will change you’

Nationwide, 911 centers are understaffed by 25% on average, according to a 2023 survey by the International Academies of Emergency Dispatch and the National Association of State 911 Administrators. It’s a recruitment crisis that is similar, though perhaps not as severe, to that faced by law enforcement agencies around the country.

Morgan County 911 has a budget for 29 full-time dispatchers. They currently employ around 25.

“We’re actually a little better off now than we have been in a couple of years,” Pharis said. “A lot of it is, for the job you’re doing here, the pay doesn’t really compare to what you can go work at Chick-fil-A for. You can go work at the plants — there’s a lot of industry and a lot of other opportunities here that have better hours, less stress and more pay. You have to want to do this.”

While starting pay varies based on experience, Pharis said it’s generally around $16-17 per hour. She wants to raise it.

“We used to be the place that paid a little bit more and people would come here because of that,” she said. “Because of changes and stuff, other centers have upped their pay, and so we need to do the same to be able to maintain what makes us appealing.”

Lance Greene has worked for Morgan County 911 for over 16 years. He spoke about his experience while juggling incoming calls.

“Every day is different,” he said. “We have our run-of-the-mill calls, folks needing an ambulance or police officer for one reason or another. Once in a while we get those higher acuity calls where somebody has been shot or a multi-vehicle accident that requires a whole lot of resources. Honestly, it’s day by day, hour by hour on what might transpire.”

Greene said people interested in a 911 dispatcher career should come and sit down in the operations center for a few hours and listen.

“If you want a job where you feel like you could give back to the community and be professionally fulfilled, you may fall in love with it,” he said. “This job is not for everybody. But there’s somebody out there — you could be the difference.”

Greene said the most difficult call he’s had to take in his career was recent.

“It was a small child that was killed by a canine,” he said. “I don’t want to go any further into it than that. You don’t know if you’re picking up the phone because somebody’s cat is stuck in a tree, or if you are the lifeline.”

Greene choked on the last word. His eyes were wet.

“For me, it was internalizing it, mentally going back to the time the phone rang until the time that I got off the phone,” he said. “Luckily, in this county, we have great support and were able to bring all the pieces of the puzzle — 911, the sheriff’s department, Lifeguard EMS, the volunteer fire departments, the staff at Decatur General ER — all were able to come together in a room.

“That allowed me, personally, to work through that. It did help me process what had happened, but it is still challenging, because you don’t know if the next call that you take is going to be something like that.

“No, we do not see it, but the trauma is still the same. We are still involved.”

Pharis said all dispatchers deal with stress and trauma differently, although everybody compartmentalizes them in some way.

“Everybody puts it back here somewhere,” she said, “because you’ve got more calls to take. Where the problem comes in, is do you ever pull that back out and deal with it, and then move on and let it go, or does it just constantly sit back there and fester.”

Pharis said the number one thing she tells aspiring dispatchers is that the job is different than it appears on TV.

“You will not be the same person that you came in here as a couple of years down the road,” she said. “The emotional toll will — it changes everybody differently — but, generally, it changes them and not in a good way.”

After making constant split-second decisions during a long shift, for example, dispatchers may find it difficult to make mundane decisions like deciding what to eat for lunch, according to Pharis. She said many dispatchers also gradually begin to lose patience with people.

“There are a number of people who will end up with physical issues,” she said. “You can have high blood pressure. Your sleep schedule is going to be different and challenging, especially if you have a family at home. The job will totally change your outlook on people. There’s going to be times that you’re cynical.

“For example, you’re going to see a white panel van drive by and think it’s a pedophile. Your 4-year-old child may want to go swim in the pool, and you’re going to freak out, because you just took a call the other day about someone’s child that drowned.”

Pharis said she has listened to people die over the phone. She’s heard them beg for help, knowing that help wouldn’t arrive in time.

“They try to tell you to leave it at work,” she said. “Throw it in that box. But how can you really do that without it affecting you in some way, shape or form?”

Sanders, who handles training for new hires, said the minimum qualifications for the job — a high school diploma, good communication and multitasking skills — may not tell the whole story. As far as she’s aware, the job requires a level of mental alertness that other careers, outside of public safety counterparts, don’t.

“There’s a point in time in there where I think every single person wants to effect change and impact lives, but once you’re given the opportunity to impact lives, you realize that that impact may be positive — you hope it’s positive — but that you also have the power to have negative impacts on people,” she said. “I think the ability to handle that crucial moment and to take that failure, or potential failure, and learn from it and persevere through it and understand that that situation might have existed before you were involved, accepting that,” is a critical skill.

She said the job is a delicate “balance of strength and empathy,” and, like other public safety professions, the full scope is invisible to the general public.

“There are people walking amongst you every single day that are taking care of things and carrying burdens so that the rest of you don’t have to.”

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