Inside the heart of emergency communications

Posted By | October 4, 2005 12:00 am

Kim Swindell Wood
An hysterical parent calls E-911 to report her small child has accidentally been shot, and a dispatcher quickly responds by sending emergency personnel to the site of the crisis.
Does this incident sound a little bit like a TV show? Maybe. Did this really happen? Yes, and it happened in White County.
The job of an E-911 dispatcher is like no other career. Words cannot define the stress that becomes a part of their daily lives. However, according to Pam Hickey, a 12-year veteran of this profession, she will continue to serve the people of White County until she retires.
Hickey had never thought about being a dispatcher. Her husband retired, and she needed to find a job with health insurance. Hickey applied for a position as dispatcher and was hired by Sparta Police Department, which was the headquarters for centralized dispatching for emergency services.
“I had no idea what it was going to be,” said Hickey.
Hickey laughingly said her husband said she “changed quite a bit” after she became a dispatcher. However, she somberly talked about the part of her job that takes a toll on the human spirit.
“I have to shut down,” said Hickey, describing how she handles the overwhelming emotions involved in her job. “You cannot let it get next to you, and that’s hard to do.”
Dispatchers must maintain a calm demeanor during a crisis. Although their hearts may beat as fast a racehorse and their stomachs are churning from the emotional rollercoaster of an emergency call, dispatchers must maintain a level head and never show any emotion. Why? They hold the lives of every White Countian in their hands.
Hickey said she wants the public to understand a dispatcher may not always give a caller the answer he wants to hear. However, dispatchers are professionally trained to respond in a manner that will ensure the safety of that individual.
“We do a lot of chattering – we’re sort of hyper, I guess,” said Hickey, referring to the aftermath of a crisis. “There’s a lot of times, especially late in the evening, when I get home, if we’ve worked something really, really bad, I have a hard time calming down.”
Regina Sims has been an E-911 dispatcher seven years. She, too, said emergencies are difficult to handle, especially when they involve children.
Sims said she performs her job during a crisis without exhibiting any emotion, but afterward she allows herself to “let go.” Sims also said dispatchers build a special relationship with other emergency services personnel.
“You get attached to all of them,” she said. “Everyone is so close.”
Both women agreed the job “gets into your blood.”
“I can’t imagine doing anything else,” said Hickey. “I spent most of my adult life working in a factory. I can’t imagine going back to it.”
Basic certification, which requires a 40-hour course at T.B.I., allows an E-911 dispatcher to operate the National Crime Information Computer. Dispatchers are also trained in several other capacities.
Lee Swindell, E-911 director, explained each emergency call falls under a specified protocol that dispatchers are required to follow.
“The public may not understand, but they’re [protocols] there for your safety,” said Swindell.
However, Swindell also noted some crises are unique, and sometimes dispatchers must make judgment calls.
Sims said those “judgment calls” are difficult.
Sometimes a dispatcher’s role extends beyond emergency services. He or she becomes a comforting voice for elderly individuals who live alone. Hickey said sometimes a person is frightened by a thunderstorm and will call E-911. A few seconds of conversation and the sound of a reassuring voice can soothe their frazzled nerves.
“Every time you answer that phone, it could be someone in your family that’s hurt,” said Sims, “You must treat everyone the same.”
A dispatcher is haunted by many sad memories, but they thrive on the days when they help save someone’s life.
“We’re human,” said Hickey, “and we love what we’re doing.”

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