Veteran dispatcher reflects on 35-year career

It’s an emotionally punishing and high-stakes job, but veteran dispatcher Tracy Mosier said she couldn’t imagine herself doing anything else

By Alex Bruell
The Daily News

COWLITZ COUNTY, Wash. — The circular room at the Cowlitz County 9-1-1 Center is dark, lit mostly by dozens of computer monitors. Dispatchers stand near desks and fly to their keyboards when a call comes in. Whatever they’d been talking about before is cut short with a calm, focused: “9-1-1, what is your emergency?”

It’s an emotionally punishing and high-stakes job. But Tracy Mosier, a 35-year veteran of the 9-1-1 center, said she couldn’t imagine herself doing anything else.

In those 35 years, Mosier has fielded calls about suffocating pigs, active shootings, natural disasters, and much more.

“The running joke is that if there was a big call, Tracy took it,” said Josh Evald, a two-year member of the dispatch center team.

Mosier, along with 15 or so other dispatchers, directs calls for every police and fire agency in Cowlitz County, along with ambulance, after-hours and non-emergency calls for service. While juggling calls, they keep track of the status of officers, consult phone numbers and criminal records, and calm down often panicked or irate 9-1-1 callers.

Mosier, a Kelso resident who’s lived in the county her entire life, started out in crime prevention at the Cowlitz County Sheriff’s Office under a federal grant. After the grant expired, she worked in the records department from the late ‘70s through 1980. In November 1983, she started training for dispatch, and started handling calls on her own by March 1984.

She’s been there ever since.

“The things that she’s seen, the things she’s experienced over the course of her career could fill books,” said supervisor Jerry Jensen. “There’s a ridiculous amount of trauma that dispatchers experience through the course of their career. … Exposure to that can harden you (and) cause you to be a little callous in some situations.”

It’s a credit to Mosier, Jensen said, that after 35 years she still goes out of her way to show compassion to callers. But dispatchers often have to balance that empathy with bluntness.

“You don’t want people to think you’re being rude or disrespectful, but I have to use the voice of, ‘Stop crying. Stop crying. I cannot help you, I cannot understand you when you’re crying,’ and it will kind of snap them out of it,” Mosier said. “You have to take control of the conversation, but you can’t be mean.”

“People don’t call because they’re having a good day.”

Mosier said she’s still a little embarrassed over the story that briefly made her internationally famous.

In 1997, she received a call from a woman whose 140 pound pig was choking on a grape.

“This woman goes, ‘My pig is choking!’ … I’m like, ‘excuse me?’ “

So Mosier walked the woman through picking up the pig and performing the Heimlich maneuver, and after a few tense moments the pig was breathing – and oinking – again.

Her then-director Cindy Barnd mentioned the story to a firefighter, and within two days news companies from London and Tokyo were calling Mosier for an interview. The call put Mosier in the international spotlight, and it’s still played during training for dispatchers, she said.

“I’d be at home and the phone would ring, and they’d go ‘This is BBC London.’ I had to do a talk-show in Canada about animals,” Mosier said. “I mean, it was crazy.”

Mosier and her coworker’s intuition can save lives, such as when she received a call for a seizure that she suspected was really cardiac arrest. The additional units that the dispatch center sent as a result probably saved that woman’s life, Mosier said.

Another time, Mosier got a call from a little girl who said her mother had just been beaten badly.

“I said, ‘This isn’t the way to live. This isn’t your fault, and it’s not your mom’s fault.’ “

Then the girl’s mom got on the phone, whom Mosier told: “You need to get out of that situation.”

Later, Mosier said, she received a letter from the mother, who said their 911 conversation gave her the strength to take her daughter and leave that relationship.

But most calls don’t get happy endings, and the worst ones — such as listening to people die over the phone — leave a scar that doesn’t go away, Mosier said.

So dispatchers often turn to gallows humor, she said, to process the traumatic calls they receive. You either learn to make light of terrible things, Mosier said, or you lose your mind.

“It’s a coping mechanism,” Evald added.

And since dispatchers are constantly bouncing from one call to the next, they most often don’t get to know what happens to the people they talked to.

“We don’t ever have closure. We don’t know if people lived or died a lot of times. And because of the HIPAA (medical privacy) laws, we can’t even call a hospital to know if a patient made it. We have to read it in the paper.”

It was the worst of times

The worst times are natural disasters, she said, when the center is hit with a storm of calls over downed trees, flooded streets, and spun-out cars.

Mosier faced one of her most traumatic calls when a man had shot his seven-year-old son and then shot himself, just as officers were performing a welfare check at their home.

“That is the scariest thing, when you’re on this end of the radio, listening to an officer saying ‘shots fired,’ “ Mosier said. “I couldn’t stop shaking. I shook for, like, a day.”

With those types of calls: “You can’t even get up. You just go onto the next (call). The whole time, you’re still back in that other call hearing all the screaming, and in the meantime you have to take this call.”

“Why do I work here,” Mosier asked, before immediately laughing and adding, “I’m just kidding.”

And the tough calls are compounded by tough hours, because dispatchers have to sign up for massive amounts of overtime due to understaffing. The 911 center is supposed to have 22 dispatchers, but currently has about 16.

Mosier said she’s accrued 630 hours of overtime this year, an average of over 12 per week. It’s not uncommon for dispatchers to get only one or two days off per week.

“I’m more used to being here and I’m uncomfortable at home. I just think, ‘I shouldn’t be here. I should be back at work. … This is my home. I just go (home) and shower; (the 9-1-1 center) is where I live.’ That’s what it almost feels like.”

But she said she doesn’t plan on retiring anytime soon. When the time comes to step back from the radio: “I’ll just know. And then one day, I just won’t show up.”

Copyright 2018 The Daily News

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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