PARIS — On a warm and foggy Saturday night in January, three dispatchers begin their 12-hour shift in the OCRCC or RCC across from the county courthouse, next to the jail.
Cammie Sprague, Candace Jack and Katie Huggins sit at their stations. Huggins, a part-time dispatcher and mother of three, is at the call-taker desk. It is her responsibility to answer the 9-1-1 calls that come as well as the "business" line (non-emergency) calls.
Sprague and Jack are full-time dispatchers and moms. Sprague is the shift supervisor.
Sprague settles herself at the fire/rescue desk and Jack at the law desk.
Although Friday and Saturday nights are slated to have four dispatchers on because traffic volume usually increases on these nights, the fourth dispatcher on this night team, Nicole Newton, is out sick, a victim of the norovirus raging through the county. Melissa Adams, a part-time dispatcher and full-time PACE EMT will be in at 10 p.m. to cover that slot.
Huggins is the newbie tonight with only a year on the job. Sprague has eight years and Jack, nine.
Huggins and Jack were CNAs prior to becoming dispatchers. Sprague had no emergency service background.
All three enthusiastically love their job. And they take pride in being a professional and competent team.
"We are the first responders," said Sprague.
"But all we have to work with," noted Jack, "is the voice on the other end of the call."
Jack said often that voice and what went down during the call gets stuck in their heads for a long time ... especially on a "bad" call.
"When you have a bad call, when it's over, you take a break, go outside, and have a good cry," she said.
"We're mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, too," added Sprague, saying that they can all empathize with the caller or victim. "But we have to maintain focus."
In order to do their job, they have to remove their personal reactions and feelings from the equation and deal with each emergency from a professional, unemotional standpoint. This is not always easy. Fairly often, because the dispatchers live locally, they might know the caller. They usually always know the police officers, fire personnel and EMTs involved.
"Things happen a lot to people you know," said Sprague.
Sprague said she rarely tells a caller she knows who she is. "It works better that way," she explained, "although once in a while, I might."
For example, she had a call from a friend who was extremely anxious. By identifying herself to the friend, she was able to calm the caller down until emergency responders arrived.
And then there's the call where they hear the last breath of the person on the other end. Those calls stick with them.
"I can still hear the screams of a mother whose child died," said Jack. "We have nightmares from those calls." For years.
There is a relaxed camaraderie amongst the dispatchers. It is a very quiet night which makes their job that much more difficult. A 12-hour shift is a long time to not get many calls and boredom can set in quickly.
Although there are other components to the job, such as paperwork, warrants to be entered into the system, faxes from other agencies, the jail, updates that need to be entered and sent to law enforcement, those are done quickly.
Jack's solution to boredom is to clean. She meticulously wipes down the desks, sweeps the floor, sanitizes the headpiece she wears, washes the floor and refills the humidifier. Then she heads to the kitchen and bathroom to do the same. Jack is a self-professed OCD who can't sit still and do nothing.
Huggins and Sprague chat quietly and Adams studies a three-inch thick textbook for the paramedic exam she has coming up.
Around midnight, a deputy and two area police officers stop in for paperwork and a quick chat.
There is a lot of good natured ribbing back and forth about whose job is more important.
Eventually the officers and deputy head back to their respective patrols and quiet settles in.
Trial by fire
In most jobs there is a training period. Usually those periods are anywhere from 30 to 90 days. For a dispatcher the training period is more like eight to 12 months. Even then, because of the focus of the four desks, a dispatcher may have had more time on some than others.
"I remember my first time on fire," said Sprague. "I had just been hired full-time [having worked for months part-time] and my supervisor at the time had the approach that if 'they' thought I was qualified for the full-time spot then 'have at it.'"
A structure fire came in and, according to Sprague, she didn't handle it well. "I was terrified and got little support from the other desks." For a long time after that, she was nervous at the fire desk. Now, it's her favorite desk and, she says, her strength.
As a supervisor, she believes in assigning her team to their strengths. For example, Jack is outstanding on the law desk so that is her assignment on Sprague's team.
Sprague takes the fire desk which is arguably, the most complicated when there is a big emergency such as a multi-response structure fire.
Anyone who has listened to a scanner can hear multiple fire personnel calling in to dispatch with their status, often stepping on each other's calls (talking at the same time) which makes the dispatcher's job very difficult.
The dispatcher has to be able to separate those responses, answer by repeating whatever was said to them and giving the fire or rescue personnel the time of the transmission. When transmissions are coming in on top of each other it can be very stressful.
Dispatcher shifts are currently arranged to the benefit of the bottom line. In the past, dispatchers worked eight-hour shifts but this set-up over seven days resulted in weekly overtime being paid.
Now, they are on 12-hour shifts – three a week – and one four-hour shift. While this eliminates overtime, it wreaks havoc with the dispatchers' sleep cycles – especially those on the night shift teams.
Most have families and, in the case of Sprague's team, are moms. Jack has six children and they need her attention. After getting off work at 6 a.m. she plans to go home, clean, take her kids skating and, maybe, fit some sleep in her day.
Sprague has trouble sleeping. All of them, often, need some sort of aid in order to sleep. Most don't get enough sleep.
The other sacrifice they regularly make are missed holidays with their families.
"I haven't had one Christmas with my kids," said Jack. "But this year, for the first time, I got to have Thanksgiving with them!"
There are not a plethora of extra dispatchers available so when a shift needs coverage, dispatchers are called in regardless of whether they had a holiday off. This happens a lot, according to the dispatchers.
And vacations away? "Forget it," said Jack. "We take our vacations in 45-minute increments," she laughed.
Good calls, bad calls
For Jack, on her first day of training she had a 16-year-old deliver a 17-year-old's baby in a car on the side of the road.
"I earned my 'Stork Wings' that day," she laughed.
Newton has had the misfortune of being on each desk as bad calls have come in.
Sometimes 9-1-1 calls are from elderly who may not have a big emergency but they are simply lonely. The dispatcher will try and take some time to talk with these callers if there are no other emergencies coming in.
"You take five minutes," said Huggins, "and it means the world to them."
"If we can't talk to them right then, sometimes we'll call back," said Jack.
Sometimes we have to practice what is called 'Verbal Judo,'" said Huggins. There is a training course in this as well. It is the process a dispatcher needs to go through to get the caller to calm down and answer the necessary questions in order for the dispatcher to send the appropriate response and to notify the responders exactly what they can expect when they arrive.
This is often necessary in medical calls where the caller is understandably upset, panicked or, sometimes, hysterical.
For example, the call-taker may have to walk someone through doing CPR. The Verbal Judo comes in when the caller shies away from doing so.
It is a judgement call on the part of the call-taker who has only the information given to them by the caller to work with, as they cannot see the victim. They have to ascertain how long a person has not been breathing or has had no pulse in order to make the determination to have someone start CPR.
So the dispatcher talks with the caller and, often, convinces the caller to start CPR. This has saved lives, said Huggins.
Dispatchers have "delivered" babies over the phone as well, earning their "Stork Wings."
The ProQA aides them in the procedure for every medical emergency.
But when a call goes "bad" there is no one as hard on the dispatchers as themselves. Regardless of the fact they did everything right and there was nothing more they could have done to change the outcome, the dispatchers shoulder the guilt.
When there's a "bad" call, dispatchers are given a debriefing opportunity the same as fire, rescue and law enforcement personnel. This is a state team that comes in to talk through the incident with those who took part. Newton says she needed that debriefing after a recent "bad" call.
"It helped," she said, but it doesn't take away the memory.
And then there are the daily (and nightly) non-emergency calls to 9-1-1.
"My neighbor is blowing their snow onto my property," is an example they chuckle about.
Or the press calls, in the middle of an emergency, to "confirm" there is an emergency because it was heard on the scanner.
"What you heard is what we know," said Jack, "so go see for yourself!"
Dispatchers are not allowed to give any information to the press. They only information they can give is which agency the press need to contact.
Jack said that nightly they get a press call asking if anything has happened that night. "No murders, no rapes, no kidnappings," is her pro forma answer ... every time. Now, when she starts saying that, the reporter hangs up on her.
Not so quiet
Another night a week later – a Friday – and a bitter cold one, it is not so quiet at dispatch. On this shift, Newton has recovered from her bout with the flu and is back on the call-taker desk. Sprague is on fire, Jack on law and Adams on Rumford.
As the team arrives for their shift, they exchange notes with the outgoing team. This team includes Joe Cormier, Keith Tilsley and Supervisor Steve Cordwell.
Each member of the team logs into the desk she will be manning, plugs in her respective head set and settles in.
Not long into the shift there is a medical call. Sprague dispatches PACE.
Soon after there is a call for flames shooting from a chimney in Denmark. The caller is a bit vague about the exact location simply describing it as a canoe rental place.
Sprague, Adams and Newton work to direct the fire personnel to the address. This is done based on what the caller described and their personal knowledge of the area. The fire department arrives at the correct address.
A few more calls come in. Law enforcement calls for a registration check. Jack's fingers fly over the keyboard as she runs the registration, as well as the background on the registered owner or the driver, if a different individual.
In seconds she has brought up whatever information there is on the subject, copied and pasted into the CAD form and sent it to the officer's computer so he or she knows exactly what they are dealing with.
This can be life-saving information if the subject is known to be combative, have weapons or dislike law enforcement.
There are a number of 9-1-1 calls that ring and then disconnect. Dispatchers immediately call back. If no one answers, law enforcement is dispatched to follow up if the dispatcher can ascertain the address from which the call originated.
This is important especially in the case of domestic violence. Sometimes when they call back they are told "everything is fine, it was a 'pocket call,'" but when an officer arrives they will find it was actually an assault in progress.
This happens approximately half the time, Jack guessed.
Jack's job on the law desk also includes keeping track of the many officers out on patrol. When she sends an officer into an unknown situation especially a domestic, she is mandated to check on the officer's status every three to five minutes.
While this can be problematic or irritating for the officer, Jack has no choice. And should the call go "bad," Jack knows immediately and can send more reinforcements.
She always runs a history of the address the officer is responding to whether asked for or not.
"I want to know what my guys are getting into," said Jack.
She will then notify the responding officer if there are weapons, and ask if she should send back up.
"If I'm going home, they're going home."
Jack has been recognized for her work. In 2010 she was honored for talking a domestic assault victim out of the situation and into a safe place until help could arrive. That same year she convinced the parents of an injured child to let her talk with the child to calm him down until the ambulance arrived.
Jack shrugs it off with the comment that all dispatchers do the same thing, and all should be recognized.
Dispatchers have a rule of thumb – "when in doubt, send them out" – meaning that even if it is unclear if there is an emergency, they send a response.
20:35 – the 9-1-1 line rings. The caller can be heard across the room. It is an hysterical caller in Paris and Newton's voice instantly goes into a soothing, level mode as she attempts to calm the caller down and get the necessary information. She manages to get an address from the caller although exactly what is wrong, other than the caller being in a snowbank and very cold, is not clear.
Sprague immediately dispatches rescue and Jack dispatches law enforcement. The dispatchers take no chances and cover all probabilities. Has the caller been assaulted? Is it a domestic violence situation? Was there a crash?
Newton can't immediately get answers to those questions just the repeated snowbank and cold. Newton asks the requisite question in many different ways, jumping from one question to another then returning to the unanswered ones. Eventually she gets a bit more information. Her voice and tone never change.
20:44 – an alarm comes in in Paris and Jack dispatches an officer to check into it. The Paris chief calls in that he will respond as well.
20:46 – a 9-1-1 call comes in regarding a threat in Paris. Jack diverts the chief from the first call to investigate.
20:48 – a 9-1-1 call comes in reporting a chimney fire. Sprague dispatches the automatic mutual aid for this call.
20:54 – a 9-1-1 call comes in about horses loose on a road in Norway.
Although there were nine minutes between the first call and the second, there were only two, two and six minutes between the next three calls. Consequently, all four dispatchers were answering the 9-1-1 line, dispatching response and following up, keeping track of where various personnel were and what was happening.
Newton is still on the line with the first call. Adams is answering the next 9-1-1 call. Jack is dispatching law to that call and answering the third 9-1-1 call. Newton is off the first call and answering the fourth. Sprague is dispatching fire departments and keeping up with their responses. Jack is dispatching law enforcement. Adams dispatches other law enforcement.
The phone rings again to cancel the horses call – they have been rounded up.
The dispatch center never reflected the tension or stress involved in juggling these multiple calls, minutes apart. To the untrained, however, it was incredibly stressful, but very impressive.
When things quieted down, Newton and Sprague sat back and picked up the relaxed chat where it had been left when the phone started ringing.
Adams went back to her textbook.
Jack started cleaning.