County dispatch center is the nerve center for first responses
When Heather Priest answers a 911 call at Okanogan County’s dispatch center, she listens for a few seconds before saying anything to the caller. Hearing a few seconds of background noise — screaming and fighting, breaking glass, or ordinary workplace sounds like ladders clanging in an orchard — can give Priest essential information about the nature of the emergency or the caller’s whereabouts.
In some situations, like an assault in progress, it can be too dangerous for the caller to risk being overheard providing details, so the dispatcher listens carefully and crafts “yes” or “no” questions. In fact, some people dial 911 to get an open phone line so that the dispatcher can witness what’s going on and send help.
Priest is one of 11 dispatchers — officially, “communications deputies” — with the Okanogan County Communications Center, part of the county sheriff’s office. Working around the clock in teams of two or three, they handle emergency calls for almost 43,000 people, dispatching first responders from 32 law, fire and EMS agencies. Their goal is to dispatch the responders in less than two minutes, said Mike Worden, chief of special operations/communications with the county Sheriff’s Office.
While dispatchers are alert to clues to an emergency, sometimes they’re on the trail of a different kind of clue. Identifying the rhythmic bouncing on a trampoline helped dispatcher Beth Paine track a prank caller who made more than 250 calls. Paine’s persistence cracked the trampoline case last summer. Using location info Paine had recorded, sheriff’s deputies traced the calls to a house with a trampoline. A crowing rooster and the sounds of birds in cages overheard by a dispatcher helped deputies locate another prank caller.
“It’s a problem — I spent at least 20 seconds on each call” — seconds that took him away from other calls, dispatcher Michael Whitley said.
Ferreting out info
Like journalists, dispatchers are trained to get answers to the “five Ws” (Who? What? When? Where? Why?). But they ask one extra question, which can be crucial: Weapons?
Although dispatchers follow a basic script, including medical questions that guide them through different interventions, they’re attuned to situations that don’t make sense. “It may not be adding up. I use my intuition and keep asking till I have the information I need,” said Pat Stevens, who’s been fielding emergency calls for the county for decades.
The script can help dispatchers stay grounded during emotional situations. Still, “it’s hard to cram things into a script where every situation’s different. You have to think outside the box — someone could walk into the room with a gun — you can’t wait to find that on the script,” Whitley said. “It’s also important that people in an emergency know they’re talking to a real, empathetic person on the other end.”
“If a caller isn’t answering right — how a ‘normal’ person would respond — I ask if they’re free to talk,” said Whitley. “I try for ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions.”
Of the almost 3,000 calls to 911 per month, about 180 are “abandonments.” Most of those are inadvertent pocket dials, but some are pranks, and some come from lonely people. When there’s no one on the other end of the line, the dispatcher has to call back to see if it’s a real emergency.
After hours, the dispatchers answer the non-emergency line, helping with welfare checks, noise problems, and stray cows.
Stimulating but stressful
The job is stressful and not for everyone, but many of the county’s dispatchers have remarkable longevity on the job.
Stevens has been answering 911 calls for Okanogan County for 30 years. She can deal with disturbing calls. “You need a healthy home life and hobbies,” she said. “But if I feel I could have done it better, that upsets me,” she said.
Paine, a 15-year veteran, was working as a bartender when she answered an ad for a dispatcher. “It’s stressful. But it’s definitely something new every day — you never know what’s going to happen,” she said. “You’ve got to have hobbies. I hunt and fish — out of range of a cell signal.”
After a stint “on the cherry line” in high school, Whitley knew he didn’t want a monotonous job. He started as a dispatcher 11 years ago and appreciates the good benefits and stimulating work. “I’ve seen a lot, but there are always new things. It’s always a dynamic and changing environment,” one that requires lots of multi-tasking, Whitley said.
“If somebody wants to study human psychology, be here in the dispatch center for a while,” Whitley said. “The only thing that bothers me is uncooperative callers — people who can’t give information, so that I can’t help.”
Priest, who lives in Twisp, is one of the newer dispatchers, although she has a long career working with emergency services. “I like the job — it fulfills what I want to do with my life. It has meaning, and I’m helping people and being part of a team,” Priest said.
Priest helps foster camaraderie by posting encouraging words around the small dispatch center, selecting personalized messages for each colleague, such as, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” “You were born with the ability to change someone’s life. Don’t ever waste it.” And, “Challenges are just opportunities!”
Still, some incidents inevitably get to the dispatchers. A fire in early September that badly burned an Okanogan firefighter was especially wrenching, Priest said. “We are human — someone calls and says someone’s got a gun to my head …,” Whitley said.
The massive wildfires in 2014 and 2015 were especially hard on dispatchers. “The 2015 fire was more challenging because it was our emergency. We were evacuated, so we couldn’t disconnect as much. Plus, we were working every day,” Whitley said. Still, with fire threatening his house, being at work was almost comforting.
Calls about fires can be particularly complex, since the dispatchers coordinate orders for multiple firefighting agencies and equipment. “I think it’s things like fire that bind us together — there’s such a close-knit camaraderie,” Priest said.
After a particularly upsetting incident, sheriff’s deputies will stop by to see how the dispatchers are faring. And the dispatchers worry about the deputies and firefighters. “You’re sending people into dangerous situations. You know them; your kids play with their kids,” Whitley said.
While there’s stress, there’s also boredom. Dispatchers can go hours — particularly on long winter nights — without a single call. One monitor in the center is simply a TV, although the dispatchers are more likely to entertain themselves with their phones today. Some paint or read. Others clean the office.
“As someone told me when I first started the job, ‘It’s not your emergency.’ I try to remember I’m here to help them,” Whitley said.
Sometimes callers recognize Priest’s voice and say that makes them feel calm. “That helps me know I’m making a difference,” she said.
How the dispatch center works
The county has 12 full-time positions for dispatchers, and 11 of those are currently filled, with two people still in training, said Mike Worden, chief of special operations/communications with the county sheriff’s office.
Becoming a dispatcher requires months of in-depth training in answering calls and gathering the nitty-gritty information. They also have to master location software and radios and understand the geographic areas served by the county’s 15 repeater sites.
Dispatchers learn about medical conditions and how to instruct someone — over the phone — to perform first aid or CPR.
For the past year, the dispatchers have been working 12-hour shifts, in a taxing two-week schedule that alternates between two and three days on or off. On top of that, they switch day and night shifts every two months, adjusting to getting to work — instead of leaving — at 6 a.m. Once the two dispatchers complete their training, they hope to go back to eight-hour shifts, Worden said.
The dispatchers work in a dimly lit room in an out-of-the-way alcove near the county jail. They’re surrounded by big monitors, keyboards and other electronics. An adjoining room holds what Worden calls the “main brain” of the operation — computers that route 911 calls; mapping technology; the records-management system used by police, fire and EMS; and back-up equipment and batteries.
Within the next 12 months, the sheriff’s office hopes to do an upgrade that would enable them to receive 911 calls via text message. Texting would be a benefit to the hearing impaired and could provide coverage in places where a signal isn’t strong enough to carry a phone call. Texting could also help when it’s too dangerous for someone to be overheard making a call, Worden said.
But older technology is still useful. Any cell phone — as long as it has a battery — can call 911, although it takes dispatchers longer to pinpoint the location of a call from an old phone.
Smart appliances like ovens and refrigerators that are connected to the internet have increased the number of 911 calls. “We’re starting to get calls from Apple watches,” Worden said. “The wearer will be lying down and not moving, so the watch calls.” The dispatchers have to follow up by tracking the call.
“The internet of things is going to be an explosion of issues and challenges,” Worden said. “It’s a big topic at the state and national level — we haven’t seen the effects yet.”
Clerical workers or first responders? That could change
Dispatchers are classified as administrative support staff — the same category as secretaries and office clerks — in the comprehensive list of job categories kept by the federal government. But that may be about to change.
Dispatchers were heartened this year when Texas became the first state in the nation to officially classify dispatchers as first responders. Congress is considering a similar change, with what’s called the Supporting Accurate Views of Emergency Services Act of 2019 or, more concisely, the 911 SAVES Act.
Reps. Norma Torres (D-California), who worked as a dispatcher before being elected to Congress, and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pennsylvania), a former FBI special agent, co-sponsored the bill in the House of Representatives, which would recognize dispatchers’ critical role in emergency response.
The bill passed in the House in July, as part of the National Defense Authorization Act. It’s currently being considered by the Senate.
The legislation notes that the people who answer 911 calls are the first contact in life-or-death situations. The change would “recognize these professionals for the lifesaving work they perform,” according to the legislation.
“They are often communicating with people in great distress, harm, fear, or injury, while employing their experience and training to recognize a critical piece of information…. This work comes with an extreme emotional and physical impact that is compounded by long hours and the around-the-clock nature of the job,” according to the bill.
That change would mean a lot to Okanogan County’s communications deputies. It also could provide tangible benefits regarding retirement and more access to counseling.
“How many secretaries are listening to people die on the phone — literally?” Priest said. “To be recognized as actual first responders would be phenomenal.”
“Just because we don’t have blood on our hands…. We have it in our heads,” Whitley said.