Mt. Vernon Register-News

April 10, 2011

Telecommunicators are the calm voices on the other end of the phone

By RORYE O’CONNOR
rorye.oconnor@register-news.com

JEFFERSON COUNTY — They are the calm voices on the other end of the phone when bad things happen: “911, what’s your emergency?”

Telecommunicators are the multi-tasking professionals who manage 911 calls and dispatch first responders to the scene, whether it’s a burglary, a motor vehicle accident or a tree on electrical wires.

April 10 through April 16 celebrates telecommunicators with National Telecommunicators Week. Mt. Vernon Mayor Mary Jane Chesley proclaimed that those days would also be celebrated in the city of Mt. Vernon, “in honor of the men and women whose diligence and professionalism keep our city and citizens safe.”

Patti Wease, the telecommunications supervisor for the Jefferson County 911 Dispatch Center, has worked as a dispatcher for nine years. She is among five other full-time employees at the center and several part time employees. The Mt. Vernon Police Department employs eight full-time dispatchers and 1 part-time employee in that capacity, said MVPD Chief Chris Mendenall.

Telecommunicators must be able to multi-task, Wease said — they must juggle listening to several radio channels, answering the phones, and organizing reports.

“We monitor the radio traffic at all times,” Wease said. “If our officers ask what the city has going on, it’s our responsibility to let them know.”

Both city and county dispatchers have a number of computer programs at their disposal, including Emergitech, computer aided dispatch, an automatic phone number and location identifier, the Law Enforcement Agency Data System and IWIN, which allows officers to talk with dispatch through their in-vehicle computers.

“We can use IWIN to give officers pertinent information we don’t want out in Scannerland,” Wease said, alluding to the community of people who have police scanners in their homes.

Blake Clements, the 911 coordinator for Jefferson County, said he is looking forward to software changes for the telecommunicators in Jefferson County.

“We’re changing the entire software suite,” he said. “It will be a digital consolidation. The police department has their database, and we have our database, and so we’re going to consolidate that so we’ll be able to see each other’s reports. ... We are essentially one team, but this will make it so there’s no break in communication. We’ll know where everyone is at and what they’re doing. It’s really going to help.”

He added that in the future, “Next Generation 911” should make it a possibility for people to send texts, video and photographs to 911 dispatch personnel.

It may prove a welcome alternative to TDD, or telecommunications device for the deaf, he said, because it will be quicker than the device.

He said he anticipates that within 10 years, Next Generation 911 will be mainstream.

In addition to being able to do several things at once, dispatchers are also required to be able to help people through medical emergencies.

“Everyone in here is CPR and AED certified,” said Jason MacIlrath, a telecommunicator and Jefferson Fire Protection District volunteer lieutenant. “We’re also emergency medical dispatch certified, which means we’re trained to give instructions over the phone.”

MacIlrath said though he’s been a telecommunicator for three years, he believes he may never really be able to be unaffected by the stress of experiencing the community’s deaths, accidents and emergencies.

“It just comes with the job,” he said. “The worst part is sitting on 911 listening to someone scream for help. You know help is on the way, but you can’t be there. It’s a huge county, and we do the best we can, but when something really bad happens that someone is going through, it feels like we’re going through it, too.”

Clements said the job of telecommunicator is not for everyone.

“Sometimes, when people aren’t in an emergency situation, they just talk awful to the dispatchers,” he said. “It takes a special type of person to be able to do this.”

Alice Kenady, a telecommunicator for MVPD since 2000, said some of the most trying situations for her are storms, when numerous calls come in simultaneously, and in-progress calls, when dispatchers stay on the line with callers to keep officers updated on the situation.

She said it’s difficult to be involved with situations when someone dies or children get hurt, but said she looks forward to helping situations be resolved happily.

“It’s great to see things go right that could have gone wrong,” she said.

Wease said being a telecommunicator can be a satisfying job.

“At the end of the day, if you go home and you’re able to say you helped save someone’s life, it’s been a good day,” Wease said.

Wease said she is buoyed by the friendliness the dispatchers share.

“The people are like family,” she said. “We pick on each other, we argue and fuss like brothers and sisters. It can be high-paced, but we have a lot of downtime.”

Clements said camaraderie isn’t the only benefit to working as a telecommunicator.

“There is personal satisfaction that comes from being able to find somebody who didn’t know where they were, and you probably saved their life,” Clements said. “That’s a proud moment.”