Night lines: Graveyard shift for police and fire dispatchers offer memorable times
April 14, 2005
An incoherent drunk believing he was being threatened in his hotel room by someone hospitalized was night dispatcher Kory Rodriguez’s first 911 call at the start of her Wednesday shift at 5 p.m.
After some questions, she decided to send an officer to assist the man.
Two hours later the other night dispatcher, Linda Clark, who had just begun her 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. graveyard shift, fielded a complaint of loud music.
“She said her eardrums were vibrating,” Clark said of the caller.
A sense of camaraderie and duty bonds the graveyard dispatch crew at South Lake Tahoe Police Department as they answer some of the most mundane and heartbreaking calls while keeping their own emotions in check in the face of dire circumstances.
“I would bet a paycheck that every dispatcher in here has saved a life,” said Communications Coordinator Leona Allen, who answered calls with the graveyard crew.
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A vase overflowing with flowers, bought by Allen, sat on one table to acknowledge the dispatchers during National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week, which ends Saturday.
Framed posters centering on words like “commitment,” “confidence” and “success” don the walls of the small square room with four communication stations. Other attributes are needed such as multitasking and patience. Another is a sense of humor, characterized by “Leona’s Cuss Jar,” a plastic bucket holding change for profanity at 25 cents a word. The money is reserved for a barbecue.
It’s quiet during the graveyard shift and energy is stoked by caffeine or sugar-laced drinks. The department is void of roaming detectives, records clerks, lieutenants, the chief and visitors who, when they enter though the front door, trip a ding in the nearby foyer.
All three women prefer working the night hours. Rodriguez repeatedly stated her distaste for mornings and Clark prefers the daylight for outdoor activities. Allen is married to a cop who is assigned nights. The shift also allows Allen time to be a caregiver for her parents during the day.
All three women have ties to law enforcement or other hero jobs. But the dispatch position is unique, they say, since it incorporates elements from different factions of the department. A little detective work to determine what is going on combines with dashes of crime scene investigator to help preserve clues while laminated cards help direct novices to give medical aid and protect against litigation.
“I truly don’t think there is any job like it,” Allen said. “They’re responsible for so much and they save lives.”
The cards are important. A dispatcher can read a card that provides step-by-step directions on how to care for afflictions including stomachaches , animal bites, burns, electrocution, stabbing or childbirth.
Out of the three, only Allen has directed a childbirth from her dispatch position. The baby was delivered in a living room. Afterward, Allen had to give directions on how to provide CPR to the newborn. The resuscitation attempts did not succeed.
Rodriguez recalled one instance of a woman who suffered a heart attack. The woman died before paramedics arrived and Rodriguez was the person who heard her last words.
“That was just a strange feeling,” Rodriguez said.
Her voice wavered once. In April 2003 an officer accidentally shot his hand during training exercises. Rodriguez initially received scant information and her voice escalated into a panic when radioing for aid.
The burden of the job can weigh heavily – the doubt of “Why didn’t I…?” and “I should have …” can be hard to turn off.
Somewhere during her five years, Rodriguez started bringing her work home. Her sleep and marriage suffered. Over time she was able to separate her two lives.
Closure on pressure calls usually arrives with details from the officers on scene or, in extremely traumatizing cases, such as the Waverunner crash last summer that killed two children, a debriefing with the entire department. Once authorities or paramedics arrive, the line goes dead and dispatchers are often left in the dark.
Not all calls are bone jarring; some are slapstick. Allen remembers one call where a teenage boy called because a cat was stuck in a tree. Help was not initially sent, so the teenager climbed the tree and had to be rescued himself.
Rodriguez remembered one lady calling because she thought someone put “AIDS powder” in her underwear and poison in her tea.
But it’s the other night dispatcher, Rod St. Clair, who is known for his intake of odd calls, calm demeanor when handling those calls and his sponge-like memory.
The dispatchers are fond of St. Clair and trade stories of his pranks and how his cheeks turn crimson when handling a difficult caller. It’s his only sign of annoyance, his coworkers said.
Despite the pressures, the eight dispatchers (the crew is down one) have received high marks for call satisfaction from El Dorado County’s division of Emergency Medical Services.
Miles Julihn, an administrator with the department, said the county’s guidelines for dispatch quality is among the most stringent in the state.
“I think they do an excellent job for us,” Julihn said.
The job is demanding. Ask Rodriguez, who had to sit in her chair taking calls one night when she had to go to the bathroom. She had to hold it from midnight to 3:30 a.m.
For the first couple hours of Clark’s shift she handled a trespassing complaint, a loud party with underage drinking and several calls complaining of harassing phone calls.
“Hot crime in the old town tonight,” Allen said.
– E-mail William Ferchland at firstname.lastname@example.org