COLONIE — The three most popular numbers in this country are arguably 9-1-1. They are ingrained into our collective conscious at a young age as the numbers to call whenever there is any sort of emergency situation and help will soon be on the way.
At the other end of the line, though, are personnel trained to live up to the expectations teachers and parents teach every grade schooler. And the process is not always as simple as sending a fire truck to a fire.
A good 911 dispatcher has to be part general, and send out the appropriate troops to deal with whatever situation presents itself. More than part psychologist, because keeping people calm when they are dealing with what could be the most traumatic experience of their lives is of the utmost importance. And enough of a medic, police officer and firefighter to give what could be life-saving instructions to untrained, often panicked, people in critical situations before the troops can get to a scene.
One of the hardest parts of being a 911 dispatcher is not the stress associated by the seemingly endless calls from people having one of the worst days of their lives, or the keeping in check the frustration with people who call just to check the weather, or the juggling calls between fire, EMS and police — it’s not knowing what happens after the caller hangs up.
“I had one call and the gentleman needed some help. It was very tough to deal with. He was attempting to take his own life and it was very tough to deal with,” said Senior Dispatcher Frank Lawyer
, who has 14 years on the job. “And I still don’t know the final outcome. I know we got people there and he got immediate help and we try to keep an open line of communication with police and EMS to let us know what transpired but it doesn’t always happen. Sometimes we do but most times we do not.”
For most cardiac arrest calls, he said, the dispatcher knows they got EMS to the scene and they know the person was revived and taken to the hospital but after that, more calls come in, shifts change and there are always more calls the following day.
A lot of calls
In 2018, according to Mike Haller, Colonie’s Public Safety Communications supervisor who has been in the department for 38 years, there were 93,126 incidents with police responding 77,863 times and EMS responding 15,263 times. There were 39,539 calls to 911. Not including the front desk, which is part of the Communications Department, the staff of 22 dispatchers and five senior dispatchers handled 96,614 calls.
If not the face of Colonie, the dispatchers are certainly the voice who residents hear when they call for help. And to be effective, that voice has to be calm and reassuring regardless if the person on the other end is through the roof frantic.
“They call here for the bad stuff and you have to be the voice of reason and you try to stay focused. The calmer we are, the calmer they are, and the easier it is to get the information we need to help them,” said Kelley Ohearn, a dispatcher for three years who worked as an EMT for 10. “I wish we could education the public so they understand all out questions have meaning. We are not doing it to be difficult, we need the information to help them.”
Thanks to Colonie having a state-of-the-art Public Safety Answering Point, one of six in the county, as soon as the dispatcher deems a call credible, they dispatch the appropriate response team and the questions they continue to ask are to help that team. So often, they say, they hear “are you going to send someone or keep asking these stupid questions.”
“In moments of panic all they care about is getting someone there to help their loved one and I can understand that,” Ohearn said.
There are generally five dispatchers for each of the three shifts and Haller said he would like to see one more per shift. Police Chief Jonathan Teale, while answering questions about the overtime his department spent in 2018, said one reason is because he would too like to see more dispatchers to alleviate the overtime burden on the taxpayer and help prevent dispatchers from getting overly fatigued or stressed out.
“There are two different times when we try to check out,” said Anthony DiScipio, a dispatcher for six years about letting the more difficult calls go. “When you hang up the phone because there will be another call coming in right after it and if you are hanging onto the previous call the odds of you getting the next one right are not good. And again when you walk out that door. Most of the time we don’t have closure on our end and sometimes it’s good but other times it leaves a big question mark so trying not to let anything from day effect you when you go home is necessary.”
It’s not always easy, though, especially when the dispatchers get calls from children or, which is many times worse, about children in some sort of distress.
But, even the type of calls that bring the most angst to everyone involved, and society as a whole, can bring some levity.
“I got a call once from a lady screaming ‘my baby is dead, my baby is dead’ and then she hung up and wouldn’t pick up the phone when we called back.” said Senior Dispatcher Neil Blanchard. “So, as you can imagine, we sent everybody, but it turns out it was her dog. Her dog was her baby.”
By and large, though, while they try to teach the new trainees to leave it all at work when the shift is done, the “kid calls” are the worst.
While the police and paramedics and firefighters get credit for being on the scene, the dispatchers are never recognized for the information they get to prepare the responding agencies.
“We have delivered babies, we have trained the untrained in CPR and we have saved lives,” Haller said.
He said he took a call about a family held hostage in the middle of the night and he talked to a man for some 45 minutes, keeping him calm and keeping him talking until SWAT could get on the scene.
“We talking about everything, he kept threatening to shoot his family and I just kept him talking. That one had a good ending but I never found out what happened to the guy,” Haller said. “We go from call to call and you have to move on.”
Lawyer said he once took a call from a man who frantically told him his wife was giving birth.
“I saw my kids born, and thought at the time ‘this is fascinating’ … but when you have to walk a guy through childbirth it’s a little different. I got him right to the point of nearly tying off the umbilical cord before EMS got there,” he said. “It would have been nice if he came back ‘hey I named my kid after you’ but that didn’t happen.”