BLACKFOOT – If a vote were ever taken to determine which group of public servants deserves the highest praise as well as the highest pay, 911 dispatchers would surely be at the top of the list, at least among those whose lives they often hold in their hands –- law enforcement officers.
But 911 dispatchers should be at the top of the list among another group as well — the public they serve daily. They’ve been called “the first first responders” because they’re the ones who receive the first word when there’s an accident, fire, drowning, shooting, stabbing, a need for medical help –- any disastrous or tragic event where professional assistance is required.
This has been National Telecommunications Week, the one time when 911 dispatchers across the country are recognized for their efforts and the sacrifices they make to keep the people they work with and the public safe.
I had the good fortune to be invited to spend some time in Bingham County’s 911 Dispatch Center with Supervisor Erin Hidalgo, veteran dispatcher Kasandra Aikele, and trainee Briana Daniels to get some inkling of what it is they do.
The 911 Dispatch Center is located in a room on the second level of the county courthouse, but it is totally separate from the everyday activities there, and it’s separate from the city and county law enforcement agencies.
The center is in square room the dispatchers have tried to make pleasant with artificial plants and flowers, plaques, photos, and paintings. Three large monitoring screens hang on the walls, one depicting the outside of the courthouse and the other two are maps of the county displaying the units on patrol and any 911 calls.
At the center of the room are the computers and monitoring screens that make up the center’s Computer Assisted Dispatch (CAD), a state-of-the-art system acquired by the county in 2003
Hidalgo tries to have at least three dispatchers on duty at all times, so there are three stations, each with three computers and four monitors. Each of the computers holds information that the dispatchers can access at the click of a key, and into which they’re required to input information from incoming calls.
The information on screen one includes a display of all the emergency responder radio frequencies the dispatchers must monitor -– the sheriff’s office, the cities of Aberdeen, Blackfoot, and Shelley along with the fire departments of each. The fourth monitor gives them access to the National Crime Information Center and state law enforcement computers from which they either input or retrieve information related to criminals and criminal activity, as well as the records management system.
Information on the second screen includes a display of the phone lines for each of the agencies. The third is the CAD screen where each call that comes in is logged and the dispatchers track on a map the location of all the patrol cars that are in the field at a given time. They can also see the location the incident personnel are responding to along with the spot from which the 911 call is originating.
Hidalgo said according to the computer, in the year 2018, the 911 dispatchers answered more than 70,000 phone calls, 30,000 of which required a physical presence by emergency responders, and responded to 1.3 million radio transmissions.
The 911 center serves a population of 50,000 spread over 2,000 square miles and has a budget that calls for a staff of 12 full-time dispatchers, Hidalgo said, but because the work is so stressful and demanding there has seldom been 12 on the payroll at one time in the years she’s worked there.
“I started here 23 years ago, and became supervisor two years later,” she said. “There’s been a constant turnover of staff during that time and it’s almost a constant round of recruiting and training new people.”
The stress of dealing with other peoples’ tragedies is one reason for the turnover, she said. Shift work is another and the inability to cope with stressful multi-tasking is yet another. “Some people want the job, but realize after a time that they just can’t handle the several things we have to do at one time.”
Others have gone on to other jobs as they grew older and their ability to multi-task waned, or the stress and time away from their families the job requires became too much to bear. Still others have trained at the Bingham County center and moved on to work in cities and counties that could afford higher wages.
Hidalgo said dispatchers are classified as “clerical” workers instead of as first responders and recognized for the vital arm of the law enforcement team that they are. She believes it’s because only a few people understand what goes on in the daily lives of dispatchers.
In an effort to give me some understanding, she showed the following passage obtained from an anonymous source:
“Imagine a job that involves managing the worst day of someone’s life dozens of times every day. Answering phone calls from scared or angry people for 10 hours or more at a time and coordinating a rapid response from multiple agencies. One mistake or misstep could have potentially fatal consequences. This is the job description of a 911 dispatcher.”
Hidalgo said, “There are times after a critical incident it’s so busy you can’t get up from your console to decompress. You cannot pause the activity in the center to gather yourself for even a moment before moving to the next call -– often going in one second from the worst tragedy you can possibly imagine to something as mundane as a barking dog. That’s a 911 dispatcher. We’re a far cry from being clerical workers.”
While some of the stress comes from knowing one mistake could be fatal to someone, she said, it’s compounded by 10-12 hours of listening to tragedy after tragedy. “I will never forget all of the tragedies I have handled on duty,” she said, “let alone those incidents that still rip my heart out and bring fresh tears to my eyes.”
Still, she says, she has always loved being a dispatcher. “It has always held such great value for me. Being a 911 dispatcher is one of the most important jobs there is, and it’s a very hard, demanding, and heartbreaking job, but it can also be fun, exciting, and rewarding.
Aikele agreed. “There are memories that bring tears to my eyes,” she said, “but it’s still the best job I’ve ever had.”
As we spoke, two calls for help came in and the team immediately went into well-coordinated action. One call reported a road rage incident with a firearm involved. Working with astonishing speed, the team worked like a well-oiled machine. Kasandra, who took the call, talked to the caller, getting and relaying information while at the same time typing information into her computer and repeating the information word for word for Hidalgo, who was dispatching officers to I-15, Highway 91, and various exit ramps, while simultaneously relaying them the information from Kasandra, typing it into the computer and telling Brianna to notify the ISP.
They breathed a sigh of relief when the outcome was positive and Hidalgo said, “That’s when it’s fun. No one was hurt.”
During her time as the 911 supervisor Hidalgo served on the Idaho PSAP Standards and Training Committee, which worked to get legislation passed to require POST Academy training for dispatchers and to get 911 dispatchers reclassified under the rule of 80 for early retirement that sworn law enforcement officers and firefighters have. The first finally happened in 2017, but the second did not. The legislature didn’t pass it in 2017, and it wasn’t even introduced in 2018, she said.