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Answering phones: Only a part of dispatchers job

by: Vern Uyetake, Dispatchers John Wiggins and Leslie Taylor go above and beyond the call of duty while answering 9-1-1 calls for Lake Oswego Communications, which serves Lake Oswego, West Linn and Milwaukie.

A friend of John Wiggins was in the market for a new job, so he thought he might try what Wiggins does - being a 9-1-1 dispatcher for Lake Oswego Communications.

'He said, 'Your job doesn't sound that hard,' Wiggins said. 'All you do is answer the phone, isn't it?'

'It didn't make me mad. It did make me feel a little underappreciated. We do more here than answer phones.'

Don't get the idea that 9-1-1 dispatchers sit around filing their nails and reading magazines about the latest exploits of Jessica Simpson.

Even if it was true that dispatchers only 'answered the phone,' the sheer volume of calls handled by LOCOM, working out of the Lake Oswego Police Department, is staggering. LOCOM director Leslie Taylor can pull out statistics showing that her department handles nearly 120,000 calls a year.

But it is the nature of those calls that make all the difference for a 9-1-1 dispatcher. They can be as simple as a lost dog or a disoriented senior citizen. They can also be about life and death.

Taylor said that about 70,000 calls a year require service in the LOCOM area - Lake Oswego, West Linn, Milwaukie - from police or fire departments.

Of those calls, more than 27,000 required 9-1-1 service in the past year, which means LOCOM dispatchers must handle an average of nearly 80 crisis calls - traffic accidents, crimes in progress, fires, medical emergencies - every day.

According to Taylor, her crew of 18 dispatchers handles this monumental task superbly.

'This center is extremely efficient and provides a high level of service,' Taylor said. 'I'm very proud of the work everybody does here. Citizens are getting some of the highest quality service out there.'

A key reason for that is LOCOM's staff has a lot of experience. In a profession where burnout is endemic and statistics show the average tenure for a dispatcher is only 2½ years, LOCOM's staff has an average of 13 years of experience.

It goes all the way up to Jim Brandt with 26 years. Taylor has 20 years. Wiggins is in the middle of the pack with 11½ years, but prior to becoming a 9-1-1 dispatcher he was a paramedic for 18 years, meaning he has spent his entire career in emergency response service.

The rookie of the group is Molly Powers, with just one year of service. Yet Powers came out on top of a job process that attracted 800 applicants.

'It was quite a test,' Powers said. 'It took months. I had no idea how extensive or stressful it was. I've had a good first year. I've had training at every position, and things are much easier now.'

'We're very, very fortunate to have no staffing challenges, like most departments,' Taylor said. 'With our hiring and retention we have a very tenured staff. Our level of experience on any day is pretty good.'

One thing to keep in mind about a LOCOM dispatcher is that there is no 'typical day.' In fact, there is not even a typical call.

'Every call is different,' Powers said. 'Even if it's about a lost dog. Each call about a lost dog is never the same as another one.'

In the face of this situation, Wiggins said, 'We log on, we get coffee, then we brace ourselves.'

When you think about it, LOCOM dispatchers are sort of like the U.S. Marines: The few, the proud. And sometimes they come under an awful lot of duress.

Dispatchers are expected to react with lightning speed, and they do. The average time on a pickup is a mere 2 seconds, and the response to a police call can take as little as 20 seconds.

Yet speed is not the toughest part of the job.

'When you deal with calls about injured children who ultimately could be killed, that is pretty rough,' Wiggins said. 'Talking to victims of crimes is really not pleasant.'

'There were days I wondered if I could handle the stress,' Powers said. 'The first time I heard screaming or yelling or heard about a lost kid. I wanted to go home and cry and I wanted to know what happened with every call. I really didn't have the energy to do that.'

Taylor noted, 'The steady stuff all day long can be just as draining as the one big crisis call.'

All three emergency call operators agree that the most difficult aspect of their jobs are the calls striking closest to home; the calls that relate most directly to their personal experiences.

'The calls that bothered me are the calls that somehow related to my life,' Taylor said. 'I took a West Linn call years ago regarding a medical emergency for two little kids. It was one of the most devastating calls I ever had because I had two little kids. It was so close to where I was in life.'

Wiggins said, 'One Christmas the first call I got was about a baby girl who had died of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) death. I had a daughter who was 1 year old. That hit too close.'

On another occasion, Wiggins said, 'The day my father passed away I got a call from a woman whose husband had gone into cardiac arrest. Their son was en route to take them to a birthday dinner.'

'You never know when it's going to hit you,' Powers said. 'You've got to have a tough shell. 'I had to deal with the call about a missing boy in Milwaukie where the grandmother was accused of killing him. I have a 9-year-old son.'

Still, the dispatchers can take solace, even pride, that their job is well done, and the public generally recognizes this.

'Our overall feedback is very positive,' Taylor said. 'The public is very supportive of a 9-1-1 center in the community. Some people are equally eager to let us know when we're not living up to their expectations. But most of the feedback is highly favorable.'

While the frustrations and pressures of being a dispatcher can be very strong, so can the sense of satisfaction.

'I have a friend in 9-1-1 whose daughter had an infant child,' Wiggins said. 'The baby, who was 2 weeks old, went into cardiac arrest and I was the dispatcher who received the call. It seemed like an eternity, even though it took only 5 minutes. I told the mom how to save the baby.

'At that point I heard a fire engine, then I heard the child screaming and crying.

'Yeah, we really do make a difference.'