A Day in the Life of a 911 Dispatcher : 2

In Uncategorized on November 29, 2010 at 12:01 am

Photograph of sign in slots-machine game room, West Virginia.

4:06 – There is a car accident on a bridge in McKees Rocks – a collision, some injuries, but no entrapments. Mostly the cars are just stuck there. Here the true power of the 911 dispatchers is brought to light: With the tapping of a few keys, the bridge is now shut off. First-responders are deployed. Traffic cones and signs are diverting traffic. It’s suddenly evident how much a dispatcher can accomplish, and how quickly. Williams is now working with law enforcement – every call she receives will be police-related – but on a different night, she could also order fire-trucks to a burning house, or advise a child how to give CPR. All of this is a verbal interaction – there are no surveillance cameras, no satellite pictures. She never refers to a map. The call center doesn’t even have windows. In this all-verbal job, clear communication means the difference between life and death, survival and maiming. And for most calls, once she has dispatched, the police or rescue workers handle things from there. She may talk a victim through a crisis situation – stalking or fire or drunk-driving – and never know what happened once she hung up the phone. Did the victim survive? Williams might never find out.

4:15 – Williams runs the plates of a dump-truck. She doesn’t know why, but an officer at the scene is suspicious of the dump-truck’s driver. “It could be anything,” she says. “He might have run a red light.” She discovers that the dump-truck’s registration has expired, and that the driver’s license is suspended, and that he has no insurance. Williams grimaces. She explains that there is a voyeuristic element to this job – sure, she wants to help people, to save lives, but as long as disasters have to happen, they might as well be interesting. Once again, she doesn’t know the fate of the dump-truck driver – only that he’s in a whole world of trouble. She faxes the information to the officer’s precinct. Somewhere far away, a report will be filed later tonight. And that’s that. Nearby, just as Williams presses the “fax” icon on her screen, a nearby CB crackles: “Disregard,” an anonymous rescue worker says. “The cat has been found!”

4:46 – A peculiar silence falls over the call center. Williams recounts the basic job requirements for a 911 dispatcher: They have to pass a hearing test, they have to demonstrably type at least 25 words per minute, and they have to train for six weeks, sometimes taking field trips to accidents and particularly vulnerable neighborhoods and highways. Then there’s a personality test, designed to weed out mentally unsuitable applicants. But the dispatcher’s personality is a rare one – nearly every one of the call center’s 200 dispatchers is a native Pittsburgher. They specialize in different regions – Williams covers Brentwood, Jefferson, Pleasant Hills, and South Park, plus her native Baldwin, where she has lived all her 28 years. The dispatchers can seem clinical, scientifically objective, but they are also dealing with crises close to home. Williams’ father is an EMS chief. She grew up with the strange hours and the calls in the middle of the night. Her older brother is a paramedic. And when she dispatches a police officer to one house (domestic disturbance), the officer is her younger brother who arrives at the scene.  “We were always around it,” Williams says proudly. “We knew what it was like to have our dinners interrupted. What’s hard is for our families to get used to it.” Her daughter, now three years old, will always see her mother as a dispatcher. Williams plans to retire with this job. But to her husband, a graphic designer, it’s a learning experience. “This job isn’t like any other job,” Williams adds. “Most people know when they’re going home.”

5:03 – Williams clears her board. All emergencies have been resolved thus far. News of a particularly weird emergency – a bleeding scrotum – is rapidly spreading from cubicle to cubicle, followed by laughter (there is no explanation for the bleeding). Williams sits back in her chair. Everything is calm. “Not for long, though,” she says. “Rush hour’s about to start.”


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