High school students will train to be 911 operators
School officials hope the class will equip students with better communication skills and the appropriate responses in various emergency situations
By Colin Campbell
The Baltimore Sun
GLEN BURNIE, Md. — Angelina Reyes, 17, isn't old enough to be a 911 operator at the Anne Arundel County Police Department, but she might get a head start on the training at school this year.
More than a dozen seniors at Glen Burnie High School will spend the forthcoming school year learning police codes and dispatch center technology -- and how to appropriately respond to someone calling 911 in distress.
It's the first of its kind in the country, as far as the Anne Arundel County school board is aware.
Angelina hadn't considered working in the dispatch center, but she always wanted a career that involves helping people.
"It's right up my alley," she said.
Twenty-two applied to take "Police Communications: Entry Level Call Taker Training," a yearlong elective class that includes classroom instruction, simulations and visits to the Anne Arundel County Police Department's 911 dispatch center.
The 15 who are selected will learn computer-aided dispatch software; mapping location skills; and laws, policies and procedures for taking, screening and dispatching calls, according to the course description.
More broadly, officials hope the class will equip students with better communication skills and the appropriate responses in various emergency situations.
The class was proposed by the Anne Arundel County Police Department, and was a logical next step to Glen Burnie High's Public Service Signature Program -- a class focusing on government and all its roles in society, said Richard Burger, the teacher specialist who wrote the course description.
Next spring, the students will take a written exam and undergo practical simulation testing and on-the-job training. If they pass, they will be qualified for entry-level employment as call-takers.
They still will require vetting and additional training before being hired. "But these students will be eminently prepared to go through this process and begin their formal training," Burger said.
The class is, in part, a recruitment tool: The agency has a vacancy rate of nearly one-quarter among dispatchers and 8 percent among call-takers, and officials hope graduating students will apply for jobs, spokesman Lt. Ryan Frashure said.
(Call-takers answer 911 calls and enter the information into the communications system; dispatchers are responsible for forwarding the details to responding officers.)
"Not only has there been a decrease nationwide for first responders, but dispatchers as well," Frashure said.
The class was unanimously approved by the county school board, said Skip Lee, the school system's director of curriculum and innovation design. In addition to the instructors, police will provide all the required equipment and software.
Lee said the course "made perfect sense," because it will offer practical, real-world experience that can be parlayed into a job after graduation.
"Anytime we can get a particular skill set in the hands of students, especially at a high school age, where they can matriculate into a career path, is a huge bonus for us," Lee said.
It will be offered only to seniors, as the department requires applicants to be 18 to be hired.
But he acknowledged it will require teenagers to learn how to navigate calls about domestic violence, car crashes, killings and any number of other high-stress situations.
The school system is seeking to select the most mature students for the class, he said.
"Think of all the things people call 911 for," he said.
Kyle Biesterfeld, who turns 17 next month, said the official who pitched the course to the junior Public Service Signature Program class in the spring did not sugar-coat the realities of the job.
"You can't really take this class if you're squeamish," he said they were told. "There will be graphic stuff on the phone you don't really want to hear, but you'll have to."
But the rising senior is excited to be applying for the class.
"It's something that you wouldn't usually learn," he said, "and a thing that could be helpful to me maybe in the future."
His father, Michael Biesterfeld, said Kyle has a "good head on his shoulders." He's confident he's mature enough to handle the training.
"I think it's great," he said. "It gives them an opportunity to learn something and be involved in the community."
Staff at the 911 dispatch center at police headquarters in Millersville are responsible for making sure officers, firefighters and medics know where to go and what they will encounter when they get there.
They are "the brains of the operation" -- a critical role in a police, fire or other agency response to any situation, Frashure said.
"They often get overlooked, but if you ask any first responder, they're the lifeline and the glue that holds everything together," he said.
A painted sign in a corner of the dimly lit dispatch center puts it more pointedly:
"You might know where you are and what you are doing. God might know where you are and what you are doing. But if DISPATCH doesn't know where you are and what you're doing, I hope you and God are on very good terms!"
Call takers and dispatchers get a behind-the-scenes look at how the police department operates, said Sarah Ashburn, who supervises the dispatch center.
Some eventually become Anne Arundel County police officers or work in any number of roles in other agencies, she said.
"It's a cool trade to learn, because you can go anywhere with it," Ashburn said. "It gives you a leg up."
Lemont Johnson, a dispatcher who had been at the department for more than two years, said the class will give students a chance to find out whether they are suited for the job.
Johnson dispatched the first officers to the mass shooting at the Capital Gazette newspaper office last month, Ashburn said. She complimented his handling of the intense and chaotic situation.
Johnson acknowledged his role, but didn't take too much credit.
"We did what we do," he said.
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