911 dispatchers: What they wish the public knew
Dispatchers said there are three vital steps they must take before sending help, and protecting first responders is also a priority
By Amanda Thames
The Daily News
JACKSONVILLE, N.C. — Just because a 9-1-1 telecommunicator is not on-scene doesn’t mean they’re not considered first responders.
They are the people who someone in a crisis speaks to first, the lifeline supplying firefighters, paramedics and police officers with information, the saving grace for some people in the midst of the worst moments of their lives.
“A 911 operator is the first part of the emergency services cycle,” said Lisa Moran, a 14-year telecommunicator who has worked as a Jacksonville Police Department 9-1-1 dispatcher since May 2011.
But there are a lot of things these dispatchers wish callers knew about their jobs, including what’s required during a call, said 9-1-1 Division Chief Ray Silance with Onslow County Emergency Services.
The main question most telecommunicators are asked is why they have to ask so many questions, Silance said.
With the sound of phones ringing in the background from the grouped-together desks of telecommunicators, Silance said the questions allow them to help. They have to know exactly what is going on and as much information about the person or people in need as possible in order to legally be able to help.
Pulling out a long, laminated list of cards, Silance flipped to the sections on what to ask if someone is not breathing. Once it’s determined that someone can’t breathe, the telecommunicator needs to know the person’s age, he said. There is a page for infants, children and adults with age-specific questions to help until someone in-person steps in.
Knowing exactly what’s wrong is only the first of three vital steps before a telecommunicator can send help, Silance said. The caller needs to give their phone number in case they are disconnected so they can get back in touch, as well as the address so an emergency responder can be dispatched to help.
The telecommunicator remains on the phone after that to continue their questions so they can get as much information as possible to keep those going to the scene safe, learn if they can help over the phone and, if something else is going on at the same time, find out where resources are needed most, Silance said.
“Just because I’m on the phone with you doesn’t mean I’m not dispatching someone,” Silance said.
Keeping other first responders safe is a vital part of Moran’s job.
“We are their lifeline at times,” she said. “We maintain communication with them during their response. I like to know they are OK, especially after a tough call.”
To do that, they ask questions to find out exactly what kind of situation first responders are going into and update the police, EMS or firefighters before they arrive on scene.
“They are the unseen heroes,” Richland Police Department Chief Ron Lindig said.
Lindig said law enforcement officials depend on dispatchers “110 percent” to keep them informed and out of harm’s way.
“The most important aspect of my job is to maintain focus,” Moran said. “I want to do the absolute best that I can to serve not only the first responders, but also the citizens of Jacksonville.”
DON'T MAKE IT BIGGER THAN IT IS
There’s a difference between a stubbed toe and a heart attack, a fender bender and a head-on collision; and Silance said exaggerating a more minor scenario is a dangerous thing to do. When resources are used somewhere they aren’t needed as immediately, it puts other people’s lives at risk.
“If people are calling 9-1-1 for non-emergencies ... that is taking away from that telecommunicator answering another 9-1-1 call,” he said.
Being honest about the situation allows dispatchers to send the help that’s needed, and even in non-emergencies help will still come, Moran said.
Another thing dispatchers wish callers knew: Don’t just hang up if you call 9-1-1 accidentally.
“Just because you hung up doesn’t mean it didn’t ring,” Silance said.
They have to know the caller is OK, Moran said, and mistaken calls happen often. When someone just hangs up, the dispatcher has to call back to find out if it was a mistake or a real emergency.
If someone doesn’t answer when they call back, Moran said dispatch has to send officers to the approximate location of the call to ensure everything is OK.
“Those officers are no longer available for another citizen in the event of an emergency,” she said.
But despite the obstacles, Moran said dispatchers choose that career because they have a passion to help.
“On what could be the worst day of your life, they are there to help you,” she said.
Moran asks that callers just stay calm. Telecommunicators know it’s an emergency and they’ve been trained to help — as much as someone on scene.
“The telecommunicator’s voice on the other end of the line belongs to an empathetic, intelligent and trained professional that is here to provide assistance to you in the event you ever have to dial 911,” she said.
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