by Jeremy Couso
For every crisis or emergency in this county there is a carefully measured response – some large, involving multiple agencies, some involving only one officer, some involving fire or medical – the one common denominator in almost every situation is the first person 911 callers reach on the phone. In a very literal sense dispatchers are the true ‘first responders’ for anyone dialing 911.
April 9th through the 15th is National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week, a chance for us to give thanks to the folks who work behind the scenes at emergency call centers across the country.
Here in Lassen County emergency phone calls are answered by the Lassen County Sheriff’s Office 911 center, the Susanville Area CHP Dispatch Center and the Susanville Interagency Fire Center.
“They handle hundreds of 911 calls each day, and almost every one of them requires them to listen to an anxious caller experiencing some form of crisis,” explains Lassen County Sheriff Dean Growdon.
The public hears dispatchers when they call 911, but seldom sees them. Dispatchers are the bridge between law enforcement and the public, making sure the correct assistance is provided. The correct assistance may include sending an officer or contacting other emergency services, whatever the situation requires.
Dispatchers sometimes stay on a call, giving lifesaving instructions or providing a sympathetic ear to a person in crisis.
“The work of a 911 dispatcher is very challenging,” said Growdon. “They work around the clock to ensure they can send the appropriate help when it is needed most.”
Growdon, illustrating the dispatchers’ dedication, explained that these men and women often work holidays, anniversaries and birthdays to help keep our communities safe.
I sat down last week with Lassen County Sheriff’s Office dispatchers Cliff Bannister and Margi Campbell to learn more about their jobs and the challenges of providing instant and appropriate responses to any emergency that may present itself when those 911 lines ring. The two are part of a small, close-knit staff that handles the phones around the clock in the Lassen center.
Talk naturally turned to the ‘most difficult’ part of their jobs – beyond having to manage multiple emergencies simultaneously while remaining calm and professional.
Bannister and Campbell agreed that the lack of closure is at the top of that list.
“We will answer a 911 call where the caller is distressed and pleading for help,” said Campbell. “As soon as we transfer that call to medical or to law enforcement we have to move to the next call without knowing the final outcome.”
Campbell said because they are in the same building with the Sheriff’s Deputies, and because deputies are aware of that particular stress, they are very good about letting dispatchers know what happened after the emergency is over.
It is all about awareness after all. As the dispatcher’s job has changed and become exponentially more crucial over the last decade it has been a constant challenge for agencies to keep up with the additional layers of stress.
“It burns through a lot of dispatchers very quickly,” Bannister said.
As agencies become aware of the stresses they make changes to the operations, but technology often outpaces those changes.
Both dispatchers also agreed that listening to the constant stream of emergencies takes its toll. It’s hard to listen to that for 12 hours straight without it affecting you on some level.
In a small town like Susanville dispatchers often know the person who needs assistance. That, according to Campbell, makes listening to family in the background as the tragedy unfolds even more difficult.
Through it all the emergency dispatcher’s job is to focus on methodically and systematically addressing every emergency, while never knowing what the next 911 call will bring.
“You never know if the next call will be something worse than what you already have,” said Bannister.
Dispatchers at the Lassen 911 center work 12-hour shifts, and until recently a lot of that time was spent isolated, working alone. That is changing now as an ever-growing awareness of the stresses involved with the job prompt agencies to have at least two dispatchers working at any given time.
Dispatchers work 3 days on and 4 days off, which is attractive to some folks and gives staff a chance to ‘decompress’ before returning to work each week.
The dispatch center itself is a thing of technological beauty, illuminated by the glow of computer monitors – five to a workstation with room for more in the future. Each screen tied to a different, yet crucial, part of dispatch’s systems. Lights blinking, with a constant stream of information coming and going. A whole colony of mice cover the workstations, each plugged into a different computer.
Most of the equipment still has a newness about it. State 911 funds help to ensure that upgrades are made on a regular basis. Because of staggering changes in the way information is exchanged the importance of the dispatch operation has grown by leaps and bounds over the last fifteen years. What was once a simple radio-based operation now combines land lines, internet, texts, VOIP, a web of radio repeaters – a host of technologies that were unheard of just a few years ago.
One system controls the radio communications throughout the county with dispatchers instantly able to talk to remote areas through mountain-top repeaters. That same system records and logs all phone and radio traffic allowing the 911 operator to quickly scroll back and replay any transmissions as needed. Those communications are archived in a massive array of hard drives in the center’s technology room.
“Everything in this room is recorded,” said Bannister who explained that a critical part of his job is documenting incidents.
Another computer system in each dispatcher’s area is used to retrieve information from dozens of local, state and national databases, 18 of which require passwords, something Bannister says is quite a chore. Information in these databases is used for everything from running vehicle registrations to checking warrants from other areas.
Along with launching resources as emergencies require, dispatchers at the Lassen County facility do paperwork, research and investigation as a daily part of their jobs. According to Bannister, they handle confidential information on a regular basis and go through the same background check process as law enforcement officers.
The Sheriff’s facility also acts as a repository for warrants, giving dispatchers immediate access to ‘wanted’ information going back several years. Hard copies of the warrants fill four five-foot tall file cabinets along one wall of the room.
Dispatchers routinely work with the Reno Police Department, law enforcement in other localities and contact other states for warrant service.
The facility on Sheriff Cady lane acts as a ‘nerve center’ for the county’s telecommunications network. The building is a self-contained hub for the county’s T6 data line, radio transmitters, telephones, with satellite-based redundancy. All of which can operate for days on a backup generator.
Dispatchers are even tied into systems in other areas, with the ability to answer 911 calls for Plumas County if the need arises. To make sure that no emergency calls are ever lost, the Lassen 911 center, if overwhelmed in an emergency, will roll calls over to both the Susanville Interagency Fire Center or CHP dispatch.
Between technology and the hard work of the dispatchers a wide web of safety is cast over the county.
“The dispatchers who work in the Lassen County Sheriff’s Office 911 center, the Susanville Area CHP Dispatch Center and the Susanville Interagency Fire Center,” said Growdon, “provide critical services to people in our region and deserve recognition for their hard work and dedicated service.”
Thank you dispatchers for always being there when we need you.