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Career day students get look at 911 operations center


The next generation of emergency dispatchers got a “behind the scenes” look at a regional call center last week when the Washington County Consolidated Communications Agency opened its doors to high school students for a career day sponsored by the Hillsboro Chamber of Commerce.

Nearly 40 students from Washington County high schools met with dispatchers, shadowed their work and got to practice taking emergency calls using a computer-aided dispatch system.

“It’s a career available that they can start working in straight out of high school,” said Lisa Klingsporn, director of the chamber’s school-to-work program. “This is one of our most popular career days. Registration closed in the first day.”

Century High School senior Fanny Castanon said she is considering emergency dispatch as a career option.

“I like it a lot,” Castanon said. “I like working with people. I like being able to help people.”

The call center handles emergency and non-emergency calls for Washington County and part of Clackamas County. While calls are quickly routed to the appropriate response agencies, such as police and fire departments or medical responders, some of the calls require a lot of patience and stewardship.

A dispatcher might have to stay with a call until emergency responders arrive, talking the caller through CPR for an unconscious person or to help a woman with childbirth. Callers are often hysterical and difficult to converse with.

“We need someone who is able to hear the worst of the worst and not get too emotional,” said Mark Chandler, performance manager for WCCCA. “This is a job for someone who can multitask at a high level.”

After a candidate shows proficiency in skills testing and passes an oral review, WCCCA provides paid training for new dispatchers. Chandler said WCCCA has an excellent retention rate. In an industry where dispatcher turnover can be as high as 60 percent, WCCCA’s retention rate is 83 percent, according to Chandler.

Bruce Botkin and Sandy Crow are two WCCCA employees who have made a career as dispatchers.

Botkin, who has 23 years of experience as an emergency dispatcher, explained that while on a typical day, dispatchers receive more calls during the day than evening, but the night calls are usually more serious.

“When people have to wake up to call 911, they’re in trouble,” he said. “And bad guys work at night.”

Dispatchers sit in front of four large vertical computer screens that display software for inputing caller information, identifying a caller’s location, and determining which response agency to send. The call center’s computer system is high technology compared with what Crow remembers when she began working as a dispatcher 32 years ago.

“I started with a boom mic coming out of the wall and a pencil and paper,” she said.

“The computer might do some thinking for you, but it’s a lot more intense now than when I started,” Botkin said. “The volume of calls is larger.”

“You can’t leave here without thinking you have accomplished something,” Crow said. “It’s different every day.”

Liberty High School junior Spencer Brown is typical of many students who attend career days. He took the opportunity to learn something new. His vocation goals lean toward the health industry, with a focus on a career as an athletic trainer or physical therapist, but the call center’s connection with medical emergencies prompted him to sign up for the event.

“It’s very interesting,” Brown said. “I’ve always wondered about 911 calls and what goes on behind the scenes. It’s pretty amazing how it all works.”