- Associated Press - Saturday, June 6, 2015

ST. CLOUD, Minn. (AP) - Deb Harren’s voice is softest when most people would want to scream.

“The cops always say they can tell when something big is coming over the radio because I go down an octave,” Harren said. “I don’t think about it too much, but it’s just to calm people down.”

Harren has been a Stearns County 911 dispatcher for more than 20 years. She said lowering her voice when talking with terrified or hysterical callers, while either talking them through a crisis or gathering information for responders, is the most important technique she has learned in that time on the job.

“There’s nothing worse than when you’re talking and someone’s screaming at you to calm down,” she said. “So I just quiet down, and then (callers) tend to quiet down too. You repeat things to them, and they’ll correct you if it’s wrong, which helps them feel more in control

“If that doesn’t work, I tend to just quit talking. Then all of a sudden they’ll go, ‘Are you there?’ And then they’re ready to listen.”

That level of restraint and patience, dispatchers say, is a vital component to doing the job. Another is empathy. Many people who call 911 in medical emergencies or car accidents are experiencing an emergency for the first time. A dispatcher needs to understand their fear despite hearing similar calls several times a day, the St. Cloud Times (https://on.sctimes.com/1Qkye8O ) reported.

“It’s busy and you can only spend so much time with a person,” Megan Kampa said. “You’d like to spend more time with them because you know to them this is a big deal, and to you it’s not necessarily. But just letting them know that you can feel what they’re going through helps.”

The Stearns dispatch center is almost eerily quiet. There are two to four dispatchers in the room at a given time. Phones are answered too quickly for there to be any constant ringing, and calls dealt with too efficiently to hear any shouting.

“You can’t ever get too excited,” Kampa said. “I’ve had people come in and tell me, ‘I thought it was going to be crazier.’ “

That isn’t to say it doesn’t get crazy.

Kampa said she has never forgotten a day, six or seven years ago, when she took a call from a woman who had been kidnapped by her ex-husband. She stayed on the line until police arrived and saved the woman.

Chris Hagstrom, one of the newer dispatchers in the county, said the intensity of dangerous in-progress situations came as a shock to him, even though he had been prepared.

“You go through training, but then it’s like, ‘This isn’t an audio recording anymore. There is actually a person with a gun on the other end of that line,’” he said. “You hear a lot of scary things, and one of the big stressors is you’re sitting at your station and you can’t do anything but send someone. And you have to sit there and listen to whatever is happening.”

One of the most frightening calls Harren has taken was an early example of “swatting,” a dangerous prank in which someone makes a fake report to 911 in order to send police to somebody else’s house.

In that instance, Harren recalls, a teenager called and said he had just shot his dad. The teen said his mom would be coming into the room soon.

“I said, ‘You need to focus on what I am talking about right now.’ I could hear a knock on the door. I said, ‘You need to turn away from that door.’ And then I heard gunshots,” she said. “I jumped up and looked at my partner and just shook my head.

“The cops were there and couldn’t hear the gunshots, and then it clicked what was going on. But that was a horrible, horrible call. That one affected me.”

There are many routes into dispatch work. Stearns County Sheriff’s Lt. Bob Dickhaus said some emergency dispatchers come from working on a bus dispatch. Kampa joined the military after high school, thought she wanted to enter law enforcement afterward, and found she liked taking 911 calls. Hagstrom worked for more than three years as an emergency medical technician, which he said helps him respond to medical emergency calls.

Harren’s path was a bit different. She has a friend who worked in a police department in Florida. One year she visited her friend and went to see her workplace. The department offered her a job in the dispatch center, she took it, and is still lowering her voice in emergencies years later.

“I’m very surprised I’m still doing this,” she said. “I think it’s that every day is different. I enjoy helping people, and this allows me to do that.”

___

Information from: St. Cloud Times, https://www.sctimes.com

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