Before the lights and sirens, before the boots on the ground, before the storyline moves fast enough to have a middle and an ending, it must first have a beginning. And that beginning starts with calls routed to tiny cubicles tucked into corners of old buildings, or sprawling modern complexes twinkling with more lights than the White House Christmas tree.
But whether the drama is born in a communications center manned by one, or in a state-of-the-art concrete tower bristling with up-to-the-second technology, almost every emergency call starts with the person who answers the radio or telephone: The dispatcher. The guy or gal who works in an environment as tightly sealed as a research laboratory. Only instead of trying to figure out what makes nature tick, dispatchers duel with life and death situations with liberal doses of training, experience and common sense.
In the process, they also save lives, but it often comes at a price. Sure, police officers, paramedics, firefighters and other emergency professionals — all of whom rely on competent dispatching to get them where they need to be and with enough information to do their jobs — appreciate dispatch and the people who work there. But not many outside the telecommunications centers confront the stress under which dispatchers labor or understand the misconceptions others have about the jobs they do.
In the call center
Gail Klanchesser has been a dispatcher since 1986. She currently works for the Rockingham Sheriff's Department, in Brentwood, N.H. Klanchesser says the most difficult part of her job is the unknown, as in not knowing what's on the other end of the line when she answers.
"It could be a wrong number, it could be a major incident," Klanchesser says. "You have to be prepared for just about anything."
A major pet peeve? "The officer(s) that don't call in their activities until they're over, [for example] calling in a stop after they've stepped out of the car and spoken with the driver. What if something happened? We wouldn't know where they were," she says.
The candidates who succeed at dispatching are the ones who, according to Klanchesser, have "patience, thick skin, and a serious ability to multitask and [pay] attention to detail."
Klanchesser, who works at a consolidated call center, says she sees the advantages of big centers. "I think it slows dispatch to receive the call, but then have someone make an additional call to the other dispatch center." But she believes it's important to keep dispatching local, and says she feels frustrated when she's dispatching for towns she only knows on a map.
Like a small town of its own
Law enforcement has its own culture. Officers work so closely together with the others in their units that they develop an almost familial relationship. As a result, they often spend off-duty time together, gossip about one another and generally "get into each other's business." Dispatch is no different.
Corrine Begg, a veteran dispatcher who also owns and operates a coaching service for dispatch professionals says it is perfectly normal for groups with common interests to form tight bonds. But that tight bond isn't always a blessing.
"I think gossip is a big issue. In our center there are two levels — the ones who talk and the outcasts, the ones whom the others tend to gossip about. The big problems come about when supervisors don't put a stop to it," Begg says.
Part of the issue stems from the personal relationships that form inside call centers. Friends, lovers, ex-lovers and enemies all end up working side-by-side. Throw into the mix a job that is highly stressful and requires constant interaction and you have the ingredients for potential toxicity.
"As far as interpersonal interactions, I find it on some levels fantastic — that the bond with my coworkers is amazingly similar to the one you get when you work on the streets," Begg says.