Firefighters, sheriff’s deputies, animal control officers, paramedics and EMTs are all called “first responders,” but in an emergency, the first response most people get is from a dispatcher.
This week, Loudoun is celebrating National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week, which recognizes the work those people do behind the scenes and over the phone. Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office Emergency Communications Manager Captain Beverly Tate called the people under her supervision the “most underappreciated” first responders.
Fire-rescue and Sheriff’s Office dispatchers share space in the county’s emergency communications center near Leesburg Executive Airport, where they are the first point of contact for 9-1-1 calls across Loudoun and parts of Dulles Airport. They juggle a lot of jobs—finding and directing first responders to the incident, providing them with more information as its becomes available, sending other resources as they are requested, and most of all, talking with the people who call in.
“When they’re in an accident, people are just traumatized, so they can’t think straight,” said Sheriff’s Office dispatcher Gail Pryor. She said her first job is to find out where people are—but sometimes they’re too shaken up to give good information, and cell phone location services can take time to zero in.
“Some people don’t know where they are,” Pryor said. “That’s the main thing, tell me where you are. No matter what’s happening, we can get you help, but we’ve got to know where you are.”
And of course callers can get aggressive. Dispatchers sometimes have to figure out how to separate two people over the phone until first responders arrive. Pryor recalled one caller who had been in a car wreck with a neighbor.
“Instead of talking to me, he was yelling and cussing at the other person,” she said. “He had a very expensive car and he was very upset about it, but his kid was bleeding in the back seat.” Pryor asked him to “please attend to your daughter,” which finally got the driver to settle down a little.
“You have to think of something to get their mind to come back to them for a minute,” Pryor said.
Dispatchers also face a different set of stresses at work than other public safety personnel—a stress that comes with witnessing an emergency over the phone and the radio.
“There is no closure, so to speak, for these folks,” said Fire-Rescue Emergency Communications Center Manager Patty Turner. She gave the example of a mother calling in with a child who is not breathing: “They can only give them their pre-arrival instructions and hope that they’re following their instructions to get a successful outcome.”
Once first responders get on the scene and the caller hangs up, dispatchers don’t know what happens.
“They carry that stress with them when they leave the job,” Turner said. “And it’s a very stressful situation.”
Studies have found 9-1-1 telecommunicators are at a higher risk for post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, along with other physical ailments. Some people on each shift have been trained in stress management and how to spot the warning signs if one of their colleagues needs help. The county also provides mental health services to their employees if they need them, although sometimes those counselors are strangers to the stresses of public safety jobs.
The Loudoun Board of Supervisors declared National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week with a resolution April 3.
“Loudoun’s public safety telecommunicators are the heart of public safety and the positive first link between residents and first responders during an emergency situation,” said Sheriff Mike Chapman in a prepared statement. “Morning, noon and night, they take our calls for service in a capable and professional manner and it is a privilege to have such outstanding professionals serve Loudoun County.”
“Aside from the professionalism, quick thinking and technical skills that Loudoun’s telecommunicators demonstrate, they maintain a high degree of care and compassion when dealing with the residents and visitors of Loudoun County,” added Acting Fire-Rescue System Chief Keith Johnson. “It is these traits, in addition to their ability to stay calm during a crisis, which make them the true first responders and heroes.”
Loudoun’s Telecommunicators of the Year
This year, six people have been recognized as public safety telecommunicators of the year. Those are:
Fire and Rescue Telecommunicator of the Year: Toni Fowler
Fire and Rescue Supervisor/CTO of the Year: Blair Forrester
Fire and Rescue Communications Achievement Award: Casey Jo Charles and Jerri DaCosta
Sheriff’s Office Telecommunicator of the Year (dayshift): Ron Kauffmann
Telecommunicator of the Year (evening shift): Jeffrey Kish
Sheriff’s Office Telecommunicator of the year (midnight shift): Miranda Freeman