“911. What is your emergency?”
All across America, we take for granted that simply dialing those three numbers will immediately connect us to help. But it wasn’t always this way.
Almost 50 years ago, Haleyville, Alabama, was the first city to implement a 911 system. This occurred in 1968 in response to President Lyndon Johnson’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice, which advised police departments to set up a number for the public to call in case of emergency.
More cities followed that precedent over the next several years until the emergency system became what it is today: modern call centers called Public Safety Answering Points or PSAPs, which are staffed 24/7, 365 days a year and able to dispatch first responders immediately, no matter the situation.
Given that April is 911 Education Month and that April 9-15, 2017 is National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week, we thought it fitting to find out what goes on behind the scenes when a citizen dials 911. We spoke with representatives from Marion County Public Safety and Citrus County Sheriff’s Office Public Safety Answering Point to learn more.
CHALLENGING ROLE TO FILL
Public safety telecommunicator: such an innocuous title for one of the most mentally and emotionally challenging jobs anyone could sign on for. Simply showing up for work is a virtual guarantee of stress.
People don’t tend to think, “I want to be a 911 call taker when I grow up.” It takes unique individuals to fill the role and man the positions day in and day out. They are literally the first of first responders, because without their efforts the police officers, sheriff deputies, firefighters and emergency personnel wouldn’t know to come to the rescue.
Any time someone dials 911, the call is answered by a public safety telecommunicator (PST) in the communications center. Their job is to rapidly gather pertinent information, entering it into the Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) system so that emergency dispatchers can send the correct first responders to the scene.
(In case you wondered, call centers also have a back-up plan in case computers go down. There are carbon copy forms and laminated boards with grease pencils for inputting information the old-fashioned way—by hand!)
Depending on the communications center, dispatchers may be working from the same location. Even as responders are en route, the PST continues speaking with the caller, telling them what to do next. In case of a medical emergency, for example, the PST gives detailed instructions for CPR or how to stop bleeding, etc., until help arrives.
“Nobody calls 911 when they’re having a good day,” says Chris Evan, deputy director of emergency operations in Citrus County, who oversees the 911 center there. “They may be calling because someone has been shot, or they came home and found a loved one has committed suicide, or an infant is not breathing because they fell into the pool. Callers may be cursing or yelling, and in some cases, they are intoxicated.
“This is a very stressful job, and it takes a certain person to do it. It sounds odd, but this is the ultimate customer service occupation,” Evan notes.
The best PSTs are able to multi-task, prioritize and have the ability to compartmentalize.
“We hire for attitude and train for skill. We want them to be motivated and have a positive attitude. They need to be able to take control but also be compassionate. They must work as an individual but also as a team. They must have computer skills, and although they don’t have to be an expert, they must be able to maneuver a Windows operating system,” Evan adds.
The job application alone can be intimidating because of its length. Once an applicant passes the interview, they must also pass a lie detector test, psychological exam, background and medical checks, as well as a final exam. New hires complete a training program that involves nearly 400 hours, most of which takes place in the classroom, although there is some ride-along time with first responders to see what it’s like at an actual scene.
With initial training complete, the employee receives their PST certification from the state. But even at this point, when they are allowed to start answering calls, it’s usually about 300 more hours before they are on their own.
“They first answer non-emergency calls before moving to emergency calls,” says Evan, noting that his PSTs currently range in age from 21 to 61. “They have one year after they’re released from training to get certified on the radio dispatch. Our goal is to train everybody for every position. It’s not always achievable, but we move to train in all areas because we need them to be able to do both call taking and radio dispatch.”
Working in the communications center, everyone works 12-hour shifts. In a perfect world, they have every other weekend off, but their world is far from perfect. Overtime is common, and there are also “on call” days.
With those hours and the rigorous training involved, you’d think these positions would be high paying, but they actually start at about $27,500 per year, although the benefits are great.
Imagine having a job where almost everything you say is on the record when you’re clocked in. Because every 911 call is recorded, there is a great deal of scrutiny, and Evan notes that calls are routinely reviewed to be sure procedure is followed.
“We’re very aggressive with quality assurance,” he says. “The No. 1 thing is customer service.”
“I wasn’t looking for this job, but now I want to stay with it and make it my career,” says Hannah Carpenter, 30, who has worked for Marion County Public Safety since 2012, first as a PST and then as a dispatcher.
“When I came home from the Marine Corps, I knew I could handle high stress, so when a friend told me about a job opening in the 911 call center, I applied,” says Frank Roberts, 39, communications supervisor with Citrus County Sheriff’s Office. Roberts started out as a PST in 2001 and became a supervisor in 2008.
Location is the most critical information obtained in any 911 call.
“If we don’t know where you are, we can’t help you,” says Roberts. “One or two minutes can make the difference between life and death.”
The caller’s street address automatically shows on the computer screen if they’re calling from a land line phone. However, if they’re calling from a cell phone, only the nearest cross streets are identified.
“It’s a big misunderstanding to think if you call from a cell phone we know where you are. We can see coordinates and a round-about area, but it’s not like calling from a land line where we know exactly where you are. That’s why we ask the person to repeat the address,” Roberts explains.
“People get annoyed when we ask them to verify their address, but the most important thing is getting the address right,” says Carpenter. “When we’re asking questions, we’re not doing it to delay anything; we just need to get the information.”
FULL MOON CRAZINESS
A shift in the emergency communications center can be like organized chaos, but if there’s one thing PSTs appreciate about their job, it’s that they never know what to expect.
“I don’t know that there’s ever been a study done on this, but I would say it’s 100 percent true that we get more crazy, off-the-wall calls during the full moon,” Roberts says with a smile.
Roberts adds that one of the first 911 calls he took when he started on the job was on Thanksgiving. A female caller wanted to know how long it took to cook a turkey.
“For her, this was an emergency,” says Roberts.
Alcohol definitely figures into the job—when it comes to some callers, that is.
“We will have intoxicated people call in who make no sense at all,” Evan says. “One person called in to say she’d bought a sex toy and it wasn’t working. She wanted a deputy to come take the item back and exchange it.”
“You wouldn’t believe the things people call about,” says Carpenter. “One person called about a UFO. Another woman told me she thought her neighbor was giving her Chihuahua bags of shrimp. I wasn’t sure what we were supposed to do for her. We always want to remain professional, but sometimes you have to mute a call so you don’t offend the caller by laughing.”
There are days when PSTs are riding high, knowing they’ve literally helped save a life. Like the time Carpenter helped a woman caller deliver her own baby and heard the newborn’s first cries in the background.
“You have days when you really know you’re making a difference. You help deliver a baby or catch the bad guys,” says Carpenter. “Other days are bad. There have been times I’ve had to take a break, go outside and just cry,” says Carpenter.
“It’s definitely stressful and takes a toll on a person; you have to have a heart for it,” she adds. “A few bad calls coming close together have been enough to make some call takers turn in their two-week notice.”
Talking to a person who is suicidal and has a gun to their head clearly ranks as one of the toughest calls. Especially when, despite all the PST does—and the fact that help has been dispatched and is on the way—the call ends with a gunshot.
PSTs add that calls involving a child are usually the worst of the worst and can haunt them.
HELP FOR THE HELPERS
Studies have found that PSTs can experience significant emotional distress directly related to handling emergency calls. This repeated exposure may put them at risk for developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“Some calls can be very dramatic. If a call taker is having difficulty, the supervisor may send them home for the day,” says Evan. “We also have the Employee Assistance Program, where they can get three visits to a mental health professional at no cost to help them deal with the issues.”
“Call takers hear some pretty raw emotion on the phone and are drawn into what’s happening even though they’re not there,” says Joe LaCognata, one of four chaplains with Marion County Fire Rescue. “When first responders get on the scene, they’re able to get to work, but the call takers aren’t there, so they’re in a more challenging position because often they don’t know how the case is resolved.”
Roberts agrees that lack of closure is one of the hardest parts of the job.
“You hear the trauma and violence, but you’re not part of the hands-on fix after the call,” he says. “You have to manage your emotions in the moment but also deal with stress in a healthy manner afterward. You can’t just keep it all inside.”
LaCognata’s job is to work with first responders and those in the communications center for stress management and crisis management intervention. A former EMT and volunteer firefighter, LaCognata knows personally the challenges faced by first responders. After he got into ministry two decades ago and later became an ordained minister at Church of the Springs in Ocala, he became a chaplain for first responders.
“We had two Central Florida firefighters take their own lives in the past year because they were overwhelmed by their jobs,” says LaCognata somberly. “We have to do more to help our people deal with the stuff they see. The old mentality was, ‘Suck it up, Buttercup.’ Now we know this doesn’t work, and we’re much more aggressive in talking about stress. Now we say, ‘It’s OK to not be OK.’ It’s very normal.”
LaCognata teaches classes in critical incident stress management (CISM). Chaplains like LaCognata make themselves available to PSTs who need to talk through their emotions after a particularly traumatic call.
“Our goal is to be aware of the stress call takers and first responders are under, to provide support, a good pair of listening ears, give them the tools of coping strategies and, if needed, refer them to mental health professionals,” he explains.
“There is a cost to caring,” says LaCognata. “The call takers care about the people, and they’re dealing with people in real life.”
“911 operators aren’t usually mentioned in the same sentence as deputies, EMS personnel or firefighters, but the vicarious stress these operators go through is just as much as any other first responder,” adds Roberts.
“This type of job takes a toll on the individual and their families and takes years off your life. They make the same sacrifices as other first responders and should be considered in the same breath.”
Call from a land line if at all possible.
Know the exact address you’re calling from.
Stay calm, and answer all questions.
Don’t hang up until the 911 operator says you can.
Don’t let kids play with old cell phones; they can still dial 911 and operators must process every call—even “mistake” calls—which takes time away from legitimate emergency calls.