SEBRING — Highlands County salutes the first of the first responders during National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week from April 11-17. Annually, the second week in April, dispatchers are celebrated for the professionalism and passion they bring to their careers.
Dispatchers are considered the gold line that stands between scared callers and the help they need such as firefighters, law enforcement and Emergency Medical Services. The dispatcher on the other end of the phone line can mean the difference between life and death, literally. Consolidated dispatchers that serve Highlands County have walked people thorough CPR on the phone as well as talked people through baby deliveries. They have literally answered the (911) calling to be the catalyst to help those in need.
“You either like this job or you don’t,” Director of Dispatch Shane Smith said. “It takes a certain person.
Dispatch Training Coordinator Crystal McGann, who was recently promoted from shift supervisor, said calls dealing with children are always the hardest.
“Children’s calls are just ... they’re helpless,” McGann said. “We’re here to help. The bad outcome on those is always the hardest to deal with.”
Smith said the dispatchers don’t always get to know how the calls turn out, so there is not always closure from a call.
Currently Consolidated Dispatch has 22 full-time dispatchers, one part-time dispatcher and two temporary people. Highlands County Sheriff’s Office is seeking to hire six more dispatchers. Ideally, Smith said, they would be operating with 32 dispatchers including shift supervisors.
“Our dispatchers are very good,” Smith said. “We deal with a lot of in-progress stuff and stuff that’s happening right now and they jump to it and they get the job done.”
She explained why she wanted to be a 911 dispatcher many years ago, starting off in the Avon Park Police Department.
“I think I just enjoy helping people,” she said as opposed to being an EMT. “I don’t want to be out there doing it. Back here, I am still creating a difference because I am still getting help to them. We’re talking them through CPR. We’re talking them through how to control bleeding until someone else gets there and can take over. We’re still here; we’re still talking them through. We talk to people at the worst of times. I don’t want to see blood, so I am not going to be an EMS person.”
Smith did admit that being in the same room with the calls for 12 hours can be difficult. McGann said as a shift supervisor, she would let a dispatcher who had a rough call to go and take a break to decompress.
“Every shift supervisor does things a little different based on who you are working with,” McGann said. “Everyone in there has a different personality and they handle things a little differently.”
On extremely difficult shifts, the entire room can be relieved with a replacement team. They also have a Crisis Incident Stress Management (CISM) team with time to talk to others involved and the discussion does not leave the room. The CISM is relatively new. Before, they were using a team out of Polk County. The Employee Assistance Program also allows employees to confidentially speak to professionals. The HCSO chaplains are another good resource for the dispatchers when needed.
McGann said a few of the dispatchers have saved lives. Many have been with the job for 15 years or more, with a few over 30 years, who will retire within two years. The dispatchers are under HCSO’s Captain John Barinas.
Nikole Cedeno-Mojica is a newbie in the group with over a year on the thin gold line. After some disappointing jobs, her mom saw the advertisement and she decided to go for the job. She loves her job, especially the phone and radio while piecing together what is happening on the other end.
Falicia Roth will be retiring soon after being with the Avon Park Police Department for 21 years and 12-and-a-half years with Consolidated.
“My favorite part is the radio and listening to everyone talk,” she said. “I will miss the friendships that I have made here. We are like a family.”
Roth said she learned the bad calls of the day had to be left at the office and learn to relax once she was home.
Smith said most people find out within the first six months if they are meant for the job. She said those seeking a career in dispatch should have a calm demeanor and the ability to multitask is “an absolute must” to be able to keep up with five computer screens that include a 911 system, radio system and computer aided dispatcher (CAD) and answering 911 phone calls.
National Public Safety Telecommunicator Week was conceived by Patricia Anderson of the Contra Coast Sheriff’s Office in California in 1981. Former President Bill Clinton signed the act into law on April 12,1994, per the Authenticated U.S. Government Information website.
“Dispatchers often have to deal with people who are having the worst day of their life and they do everything they can to help that person in any way possible,” Sheriff Paul Blackman said. “Their roles go far beyond just answering the phone and sending help. They save lives with just their words. They can give CPR instructions, help someone deliver a baby and be the caring voice that prevents someone from taking their own life. They then have to move on to the next call, which can be another life in crisis or a complaint about a barking dog. They never know what is on the other end of that phone call when they answer, but they have to be prepared to deal with whatever it is in a calm and professional manner. They also rarely get closure on the calls they have to deal with, because they have to move on to the next call immediately and give it their full attention.
“Despite that, most dispatchers will tell you it is a very rewarding job. Our dispatchers are the first of the first responders and their importance can’t be measured. We are lucky to have them.”