Dispatchers have hardest job in the department
On the Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve it’s nonstop. When there’s a full moon, there’s a flood of strange calls.
“Don’t let anybody tell you a full moon doesn’t affect things,” said Sue Gillespie, a dispatcher supervisor at South Lake Tahoe Police Department. “Everybody gets stir crazy. There are more drunk calls and fights. It’s almost like static electricity in the air. You can feel it.”
But Gillespie said even the typically busy times, like holidays, aren’t predictable.
“Oh my gosh, who knows? Sometimes we don’t get any, other times we get 30 calls in a row,” she said. “But I love it, I can’t imagine anything else. I like the speed at which things move.”
And they have to move fast. The dispatch center receives 911 calls for five emergency agencies at South Shore including police, fire and ambulance.
“It’s the hardest job in the department,” said Sgt. Les Scott. “It’s vital. We can’t do it without them. They learn to read into a situation. They are a citizen’s first step.”
Dispatchers work 10-hour shifts, sometimes finding it difficult to leave their post for a break. They direct patrol cars on the street to 911 calls as well as feed officers information they gather from databases.
Officers rely on dispatchers to check for arrest warrants, people on parole or probation, DMV records and missing children. If a caller is having a heart attack or is suicidal, a dispatcher must deliver by phone “Emergency Medical Dispatch Pre-arrival Instructions.”
Jennifer Owens, a dispatcher for almost four years, said the job can be rough when callers beg for help for a sick baby or dying father.
“It’s difficult getting the caller to do what you want them to do because they are hysterical,” she said. “Dispatch isn’t for everyone – being a trainer I’ve kind of noticed that.”
Being able to multitask, or hold four conversations at once, is a must for dispatchers, Gillespie said.
“You need to speak clearly and have a good memory,” she said. “Things change on you like a tornado.”
The Police Department staffs nine dispatchers. The application process, which includes a background check and a polygraph test, can take several months to complete.
Most of the training comes on the job with a supervisor shadowing a trainee. These days new dispatchers are sticking with the profession longer.
“The average career was about two years, now it’s closer to five,” Gillespie said. “We’re not looked at as clerks anymore because we’re really not.”
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