Dispatchers handled dozens of calls Wednesday morning as drivers slid off icy roads in the freezing fog.
Dispatcher Patrick Long took over the screen responsible for the Olympia Police Department, giving a colleague a much-needed break during a 10-hour shift.
The 15-year veteran looked over the monitor, waiting for a call. A few minutes remained before 11 a.m., the usual peak time for calls.
Using a foot pedal to open the mic to speak, Long checked in with officers, running a license plate number and ensuring calls were closed.
It’s feast or famine for dispatchers.
Thurston County’s dispatch center off Pacific Avenue, TCOMM911, averages 1,800 calls a day, handled by seven to 10 dispatchers.
On especially busy days, such as during the January 2012 snow and ice storm, more dispatchers are called in. There were 22 dispatchers handling 8,400 calls in one day. A diesel backup generator ensures the center won’t lose power.
TCOMM911 has 42 dispatchers and seven operations supervisors, as well as eight additional dispatchers who fill in during vacation and sick time.
Dispatchers work 10-hour shifts — four days on, four days off, followed by four days on, three days off. Minimum staffing is seven dispatchers during slow times and 10 during peak hours, generally 11 a.m. to 3 a.m. That’s generally when most people are on the road, or when people return home to discover burglaries.
The center received 33,525 fire and emergency-service-related calls in 2012. About 26,000 were for emergency medical services; the rest were fires.
It received 244,272 law enforcement calls, covering all departments in Thurston County except the Washington State Patrol, which has its own dispatch center.
Dispatchers have to finish hours of training over a two-year period. Most of the training is in-house.
A dispatcher’s starting salary ranged from $3,796 to $4,903 per month in 2012. That went up 2.7 percent this year.
Competition for jobs is stiff. Candidates must be quick to adapt in a career that involves constantly evolving technology and terminology.
Only few candidates move on to the center’s in-house academy.
First they have to pass a typing, spelling and multi-tasking test. Candidates have to score 80 percent or higher to move on to the next level. People interested in learning more can call 360-704-2730.
“This is a position that is not a multi-tasker; this is a super-tasker position,” said KD Seeley, deputy director at TCOMM911. “With all the continual things they are adding to this super-tasker, you are eliminating more and more of the population that can successfully do this job.”
A 200-hour academy is the next step for the small percentage of candidates who pass the test.
After the academy, each candidate is paired with a trainer and completes 160 to 240 hours of training, depending on how quickly he or she picks up the trade.
At that point, they move on to an additional 320 hours as a call receiver, then move on to cross-train in each dispatching position: fire, data and law enforcement.
“The first year is the most challenging because everything is new, but it gets better,” Long said. “When we train, we make sure people are willing to accept the risk.”
Long said, who previously was a volunteer firefighter, reserve police officer and EMT, said he became a dispatcher by accident.
He decided to join dispatch part time to cover the bills while he waited to test with McLane Fire. Instead, he stayed on full time.
“Everything is different,” Long said. “You never know what you are going to get on the phone, and there are always new challenges.”
COPING WITH TRAGEDY
One of the most challenging calls Long has taken came 10 years ago. It still haunts him.
“There were two kids involved in a fatal fire,” Long said. ‘There were four of us here, all parents, and we had to listen to the parents trying to go get the kids out of the house.”
Dispatchers have to develop a thick skin and learn not to internalize what they hear.
A team involving law enforcement, fire officials, medics and dispatch staffers meets when someone needs to talk after an especially emotional call.
Suicide calls also are difficult.
“The ones serious enough to call and say, ‘I don’t need any help, I just want you to come out here before my children come home,’” said Cody Roberts, operations supervisor, adding, “We’ve had a couple of those that definitely hit dispatchers hard.”
Dispatchers say they care, but having thick skin is the only way they can do their jobs.
“It’s not our emergency; it’s theirs,” said Cathy Moe, training supervisor. “To take care of that situation and not get involved is our job. That’s the type of personality you need to do this job.”
People who call 911 typically talk to a call receiver who wants basic information: the location and type of emergency.
“A common misconception is that they think I am a police officer or firefighter or medic,” Roberts said. “They think I am responding or someone here is responding …”
Another misconception is that help doesn’t begin until a call ends, he said.
Just getting the location can be difficult. Most callers assume dispatchers know where they are, based on their land-line or cellphone signal, Roberts said.
Street names, including nearby cross streets, are best. Those in an unfamiliar area are advised to look for landmarks or track milepost and exit numbers.
Most cellphones give their location within 300 meters, or about three football fields, Roberts said.
A single home in an area that large would be easier to locate, but an apartment complex nearby makes it tricky.
Once a location is determined, dispatchers ask a series of questions while help is on the way.
The questions help dispatchers determine what specific help to send after determining whether a call requires law enforcement, fire or EMS.
Each question is based of a list depending on the type of emergency. As many as three dispatchers could be working on one call, Moe said.
Calls about medical issues require numerous questions to determine whether the emergency requires basic or advanced life support — described as BLS or ALS.
With any law enforcement call, dispatchers ask if a weapon is involved — even if one isn’t mentioned.
“Officers have an expectation of us to give them as much information as we can so they can go in having a better understanding than just a blind call,” Seeley said.