- Associated Press - Saturday, September 26, 2015

MONTROSE, Colo. (AP) - It’s 8 a.m. at the Montrose Emergency Dispatch Center, and Lauren Ohlson is looking at Executive Director Susan Byrne with something close to humored exasperation.

Ohlson’s shift just started, and she’s been deluged by calls from police in Telluride giving citations for people sleeping in their cars.

She didn’t know that the Blues and Brews Festival was this weekend, and as the dispatcher covering Telluride’s radio frequencies, she’s going to be slammed.

Ohlson has been training to be a dispatcher for nine months, and she’s still considered a newbie. There were five other people who also applied and started training with Ohlson, but she is the only one who remains.

“The first one left on the first day,” said Byrne. “She just spent a day in here and said, ‘Nope.’ Two left after training, and we lost the rest since then.”

Dispatch training itself takes 6 months, and Byrne said most don’t even make it to the job offer. Because of that, it usually takes a year to replace a single dispatch position.

Working as a 911 dispatcher is an intense, technical and challenging job, though that’s only made obvious by the job description, not by the calm voices answering phone calls 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Bridget Clarkson has worked as a dispatcher for close to four years.

“If you really want to know what a day in the life is like, it’s hard,” she said.

By 9:15, the initial rush has slowed and the daytime administrative calls are starting to trickle in. At the Montrose center, dispatchers do it all: monitor 34 radio channels for agencies from Montrose, Ouray and San Miguel counties, answer 911 calls and dispatch responders, answer nonemergency dispatch calls and some administrative tasks.

Clarkson answers a 911 call, which are given a distinct shrill ringtone to distinguish them from every other sound in the dispatch center. It’s an immediate hang-up, but every hang up is called back immediately.

“They were trying to call to get minutes put back on his phone, but because he’s out of minutes, all he can call is 911,” she said.

It was from a cell phone, and the tower ping shows a bullseye of red, yellow and green circles giving an approximation of where the call came from. It’s guaranteed within 3,000 meters and as close as two meters.

“We get several dozen 911 hang-ups a day, and they’re honestly the most consistent call we get,” Ohlson said.

Montrose County Sheriff Rick Dunlap walks through the center looking for Byrne. He’s on a first-name basis with everyone there. Clarkson quickly walks into the kitchen to get breakfast, and she’s gone for around 30 seconds.

Every break that dispatchers take from their desks are counted by the seconds, not minutes. Nothing is consistent, nothing is guaranteed.

Clarkson comes back with a bowl of oatmeal, nuts and milk, and she immediately gets pinged on her headset. Then the phone rings, and she’s having two conversations at once, all while taking meticulous notes of everything that’s said.

“The fun things about our lives are bathroom and eating breaks, because we don’t get them,” she said. “This is what happens, you get your food and you inevitably get busy and it sits there.”

Her breakfast sits, abandoned, for 30 minutes before she takes the first bite. That, she said, is a good day.

At 10:30, veteran dispatcher David Learned gets a call from a citizen trying to track down a runaway teenager and then another from Ridgeway Elementary school about a fire drill. Learned has been a dispatcher for more than 20 years, and before that he was a State Patrol trooper and sergeant. His vast array of knowledge is highly valued by the rest of the group.

“David is an extremely valuable tool in here because he sees things from so many different angles,” Clarkson said.

Learned said it was hard to pick out memorable calls, and after more than two decades on the job, it’s easy to understand why. Ohlson, on the other hand, still has strong memories of certain callers and situations.

“When I walk out of here, I leave work here,” Learned said. “Maybe with this much time, I can just do that, turn it over to the next shift.”

At 11:35, Clarkson answers a 911 call about a person falling down a flight of stairs, headfirst into a wall. She asks where they are, a phone number to call back if they get disconnected, what happened and if the person is conscious and breathing.

“At that point, that’s when we page it out,” Clarkson said. Every call must be paged out within 60 seconds of being picked up, and the information that’s gathered in that time is crucial to sending help.

“To be blunt, I don’t even hear what you’re saying until you tell me where you are,” Clarkson said.

Ohlson said while a dispatcher knows a 911 caller is unbelievably stressed, every question asked is critically important. No matter how short or long, every 911 call is a delicate balance between the caller’s crisis and the calm and evenness of the dispatcher.

“Every day, we’re talking to people having the worst day of their lives,” Ohlson said. “We have the control to help them through it, and we have to understand how a change in our tone of voice can affect them.”

She said most people don’t know what to expect when they call 911, but what they should expect, every time, is a highly-trained professional.

“What would be helpful is for people to know that we are sending help, to take a deep breathe and to answer the questions,” Ohlson said. “When someone is just screaming, ‘Send somebody,’ that’s making it take longer.”

Dispatchers are taught a framework to deal with every imaginable situation, and they’ve memorized hundreds of questions that correlate to everything from a car accident to a suicide attempt.

“I don’t care that I get cussed at a thousand times, I care that they don’t think they’re getting help,” Clarkson said. “Answering these questions is not delaying help.”

By noon, Clarkson and Learned are halfway through their 12-hour shifts. There are large digital clocks on every wall, and Clarkson is hoping for a busy afternoon to make the day go fast. Burnout is a real problem for dispatchers, but Clarkson said even after four years, she loves her job.

“I still have a really huge passion for the job, and I still like it enough where being here isn’t an automatic stressor,” she said.

The passion is partially the love of helping people, and partially a love for the adrenaline rush that comes with answering the phone.

“Here you get to be involved in a lot of things, but it’s not in your face,” Clarkson said. “I like being on this side of the phone, I like helping people, but I don’t want to go into their houses.”

Ohlson adjust her headset and raises her entire station so she can stand and work.

“It’s never the same,” Ohlson said. “When you pick up the phone, you have no idea what you’re going to get. It could be an admin call and a complete emergency, or it could be a 911 and it’s just someone getting out of their car. It keeps you on your toes.”


Information from: The Montrose Daily Press, https://www.montrosepress.com

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