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A Community of Service

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This is a rerun of a story Bryan Rivera wrote for The Post when he was still a Dispatcher for TCPD. Bryan is now the Emergency Management technician and right hand man, holding down the fort while the Director, Tom Munoz, is in Puerto Rico. Bryan, shown here with two of his three children, was present at the Heart and Soles Walk for Breast Cancer this week in support of his wife, Ashley, a breast cancer survivor.
Have you ever wondered who was on the other line when you call 9-1-1? Is there even a real person on the other end? And what does it really take to get all those first responders to those in need? I have been a Police and Fire dispatcher or TCO (Telecommunications Operator) for the City of Texas City for almost eight years. I can personally say, “Yes, we are human.”, ”Yes, we are real people.”, and “Yes, we learn real quick how to remain calm during your emergency.” A 9-1-1 call is an everyday occurrence here in the United States. According to the National Emergency Number Association, or NENA, approximately 240 million 9-1-1 calls are made annually in the United States. Many call centers say that the reason the call volume increases every year is because the number of cell phone users is also increasing. The increased number of calls comes with an increased level of stress. A 9-1-1 call may include instructing someone on how to deliver a baby over the phone, or walking a distraught caller through CPR instructions to perform on her husband of thirty five years. The question is who would really want to do that kind of job? Stephanie Lewis, a 15 year dispatch veteran and a Lead Telecommunications Operator at the Texas City Police Department, says, “I love helping people. Not knowing from day to day what you might get into at work excites me. Helping catch the bad guys is also is a plus.”
The stressors of the job do take a toll from time to time. Cheryl Sanders, a 23 year old veteran and current Texas City Police Department Dispatcher, says “Keeping emotions on an even keel. You can go from a baby not breathing to someone complaining about a barking dog. And each call should receive the same level of service.” Vernita Rawls, Telecommunications Supervisor from Dickinson Police Department and 14 year veteran, says “The hardest part is not getting resolve. Often times, we will disconnect with the caller and wonder what the outcome was.” Part of being dispatcher is learning to control your emotions, so you can perform the job. People who are unable to contain themselves don’t make it in this industry. Emotions are everything. No one wants to be on the phone asking for help while the person helping you is screaming and acting confused. Being able to control those emotions is key to getting the job done successfully. Trust me there are rewards from working with the public every day. Helping save someone’s life and knowing that you are that lifeline for those in need is very gratifying. I interviewed co-workers and friends in the industry that had ten years of experience or more. I knew this group could help the public understand what we do and reassure them that the person behind the 9-1-1call believes in what they are doing. Katy Thompson, another Lead TCO from Texas City Police Department with over 12 years of experience, would concur when I say that it gets simpler.
“The job itself gets easier because of the experience we gain in dealing with the calls and multitudes of personalities. Some days, though, empathy is almost non-existent and the day is hard to get through. We seem to develop a sense of understanding versus caring for certain situations in order to guard our emotions.” Thompson said. Another thing about this profession is that it is not just about us or the public; it is about all the Police Officers, Paramedics, and Firefighters we are in charge of watching over. As a dispatcher, we take this job very seriously because it can truly be a matter of life or death. When I get a new trainee, I always tell them “My job is to get momma and daddy home to the family every night. If you are not paying attention or not listening, then you are decreasing the chance of this happening and that will not work for me.” No one understands what it is like to be behind a console and hear a grown man yell on the radio for help until you have experienced it yourself. The gut wrenching feeling as you hear nothing but silence on the other end of the radio will really change how you see this profession. No matter how callus this job has made us those experiences will still frighten almost anybody. As we fight through the emotions and work as hard as we can to get every available patrol unit in the right direction, we keep a calm voice and reassure the officer that help is on the way. If you think that isn’t much, imagine what it is like hearing firefighters on the other side of a radio yelling that the ceiling is collapsing and you cannot get any of them to respond for five minutes. Talk about stress! With all that being said, many would ask what helps dispatchers get through situations like that and survive the emotional toll? Verinta Rawls said, “Prayer and a good night’s sleep. I pray for the safety of my Officers and for good judgment because if we make a mistake, it could literally cost someone their life.” Cheryl Sanders helped explain using the same concept and helped give away a dispatcher’s secret weapon “Faith, prayer, patience, and lots of caffeine,” said Sanders. Yes, dispatcher’s love coffee. There is no dispatcher out there that is the same, we all experience different situations, but in the end we all want the same result.
We want the public to know that this profession exists and there is a human on the other end. “We are more than just a secretary. We really do care, and we do this job because we want to help people.” Katy Thompson said. “In this profession, we are at risk of developing PTSD, depression, and other mental issues. Day after day, we are in contact with the public and often times, on the absolute worst day of their life.” said Thompson. As a dispatcher, we find purpose in this job. We come to work every day knowing that the first phone call we take can be someone having the worst experience of their life. The reward of knowing you did everything you could to help save a life or get someone home is what keeps me at this job year after year. My good friend, Verinta Rawls from Dickinson Police Department dispatch, summed it up, “I love being the link between a person’s emergency and help. Being a dispatcher is a fulfilling, meaningful profession that instills a lot of pride in the people that are doing the job. When you tell your officers, ‘See you tomorrow’ or ‘Have a good weekend’ and everyone walks out together…it was a great day.” The daily life a 9-1-1 dispatcher is by far one of the most stressful jobs I have ever worked in my life. In the end it is important to help educate the public on what a 9-1-1 dispatcher is and to know that there is someone on the other end ready to help. I always tell people, whether it is co-workers or citizens, that as a dispatcher our job is very important because we are the “first” first responder.
When you call 9-1-1, as we talk to you on the phone we are the first person the citizen’s talk to when they need help. This task is important to all of us. So, when you get a chance, call your local department today and thank a dispatcher. However, please call on the direct line, because calling 9-1-1 is for emergencies only.

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