When disaster strikes, heroes respond: police officers, firefighters, EMTs. But there’s one branch of law enforcement that often goes without recognition: the dispatchers. The men and women behind the computers who transfer all of the information from receiving the 9-1-1 call to dispatching the officers and everything in between.
To honor them, the week of April 13 is National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week. And in Carson City, the public safety teams go all out to show their appreciation for their dispatchers.
Carson City Sheriff Ken Furlong said every year for Telecommunicators Week, the communications manager Karin Mracek spends about $200-$300 out of her own pocket to decorate the office for the dispatchers. This year, the small building looked as if you had walked into a carnival at a circus. There were booths advertising ticket sales, lemonade and popcorn. Streamers and tissue paper balls in vibrant reds and blues hung from the ceiling and goodies covered the available counterspace.
“The theme of a circus is quite fitting,” said Wendy Talavera, a veteran dispatcher, describing chaotic job they do.
Talavera never thought she would end up in this position. Before she started at dispatch, she was working at a bank when friend and fellow dispatcher Marlin told her there was an opening. She didn’t really take it seriously at first, but after urging from other friends, she applied.
“I decided it had to be fate,” Talavera said, “I didn’t really know much about it, but two weeks into this job I decided that I was never going back to banking. It just becomes really addicting.”
Talavera has been with the dispatch for 10 years.
“This job keeps you on your toes,” Talavera said. “It definitely requires your best, mediocrity doesn’t fly because you have so much responsibility and you take pride to doing your best to help people. My job at the end of the day is to make sure everyone goes home at night.”
Six cubicles housing dispatchers are stationed at four monitors for tracking 9-1-1 calls, business calls, mapping systems, radio channels, a CAD system to run arrests, warrants and vehicle information, a JClient system that’s a national data base of information, and a messaging system to talk with officers, and a police/fire radio to communicate with the public safety officials.
Each computer monitor was running at least two to three programs, and the dispatchers were able to navigate each screen with ease and grace, as a reporter took in a day in the life of a dispatcher.
“It looks overwhelming, but you take baby steps to learn it all,” Talavera said. “It takes six months to a year to be able to do this.”
Then, sirens went off on one of the computers, the indicator a 9-1-1 call was coming in.
“9-1-1 what is the address of your emergency?” Talavera asked the caller on the other end of the phone. The caller was a frantic woman whom Talavera had spoken with many times. According to Talavera, the woman had a mental illness and called frequently.
“We have an obligation to help all citizens,” Talavera said. “Even though I know that she has a mental illness, it doesn’t mean that something hasn’t happened to her. I am always going to dispatch a deputy and see if a crime did occur.”
Each shift is 12 hours, starting with a briefing from the shift before, a tentative plan laid out for the shift. The rest of the day is spent answering calls and training new dispatchers.
The dispatch center receives nearly 13,600 calls a month, roughly 438 a day, so it needs to determine which can wait for an officer to become available and which requires an officer arrive immediately. Around 2:30 p.m., the prioritizing became necessary when the center received three 9-1-1 calls at one time about three different situations. The dispatchers determined a battery in progress between elderly women was more dire than a couple whose car had gotten hit.
One aspect of the job Talavera really enjoys is the excitement of the job. She describes it as being “the same level of excitement as a police officer, but with more safety.”
“I’m a total adrenaline junkie now,” she said. “I get just as excited in a pursuit as the officers, I’m sitting here running in my seat.”
However, in order to keep everyone safe, Talavera and the other dispatchers have to keep calm in order to get all of the information from the caller to the officers.
“We get things that raise our heart rate levels, so it is natural to start panicking, but I need to speak in a way that brings (the officer) down,” Talavera said.
She said if she was to match the panic levels of an officer or a caller, then they can miss something and that could put someone in serious danger.
“It takes a certain person to do this job because you have to be assertive, courteous and helpful and you have to have that balance,” Talavera said.
The dispatchers are also in charge of determining the priority of a call to determine when and how many officers should respond to a call. “My job is all about gathering the facts and weighing out all items presented and prioritizing,” Talavera said. “We prioritize so that we can minimize risk and liability.”
On this recent day, the dispatchers were rewarded for their hard work. Firefighters and deputies stopped in to deliver goodies and show their appreciation during Telecommunicators Week.
The Sheriff’s Deputies Association sent a basket filled with sweets, and, on this day, a fireman, who Talavera refers to as “Captain McSteamy,” handy her a Starbucks coffee, courtesy of a group of firemen who showed their appreciation for the dispatchers. Even deputies who called in, told the dispatchers about how much they appreciated them.
“These guys give me a big head,” Talavera, said with a laugh as one of the officers told her she was a rock star.
The dispatchers and public safety officers all have a good relationship with each other. Deputy Matt Putzer came into the center and joked he forgot his Ibuprofen for his WTM, the Wendy Talavera Migraine.
“I am just bubbly and outgoing and a natural (smarty pants) so they make it easy to smack talk,” Talavera said.
She believes the only way to handle the pressures of the job are to enjoy the people you work with.
“I have fun all day long, even though we deal with people in the most negative way — I mean no one is calling unless they are in danger or dying — but in between you still have to enjoy the day.”
But not all calls are so easy to cope with a joke or a tease. Talavera was one of the dispatchers on scene when the 2011 IHOP shooting occurred.
Talavera could only describe that scene as gruesome.
“I have seen a lot in my 10 years, but when it hits one of your own, seeing the rest of (The National Guard) come together and unite after a tragedy was the small silver lining that helped me cope with that,” Talavera said.
Another situation that’s difficult for Talavera to handle are calls that involve children.
“There are calls that I have to go home and cry; anything with small kids I have trouble with, anything that shows the true evil of humans, those are hard,” Talavera said. “But you have to focus on things like this week where people are thanking us and coming to meet us and say ‘hi.’”
Typically, Talavera said she doesn’t like bringing calls home.
“I deal with the here and now, I empathize, but I like to leave it here. I like go for a hike to clear my mind.”
The dispatchers all help each other with difficult calls.
“We check on each other,” Talavera said, “It is such a camaraderie, it is a true team player aspect.”
Only a few seconds went by before the phones were ringing again.
“It just means it’s an opportunity to save a life,” Talavera said.
Follow reporter Taylor Pettaway on Twitter at @TaylorNVAppeal.
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