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Roger that: A tough but rewarding job

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

“Our number one concern is officer safety,” said dispatcher Kara Abdella. Dispatchers say one key to their job is the ability to multi-task. They are frequently responding to two calls at a time.

By Jordyn Dahl Herald staff writer

Like interpreters, dispatchers are able to walk a thin line of gleaning key information from one party and translating it to another.

They act as diplomats of sorts from the time they pick up the phone with “911. What’s your emergency?” to when they dispatch police officers to the scene.

Those calling in are agitated, upset and have adrenaline flowing through their veins.

Dispatchers rarely make the news, except for controversial cases such as the Cleveland kidnappings when the 911 call from Amanda Berry, one of the victims, was released to the public.

The Ohio dispatcher has come under fire for the call and been characterized as insensitive.

Local dispatchers say she was doing her job.

Dispatchers may cut a person off, but they do it to get pertinent information and relay it to the police officers responding to the call.

Lucia Schirard recognizes dispatchers can come off as abrasive when it’s a busy night, but she wants the public to know she really does care about their situation. It’s why she works 12-hour shifts from 5:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Local dispatchers work in the Durango-La Plata Emergency Communications Center in Bodo Industrial Park and answer calls for the Durango Police Department, the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office, Upper Pine Fire Protection District, Fort Lewis Mesa Fire Protection District, Durango Fire Rescue & Authority and the Bayfield Police Department. Some work the day shift like Schirard and others take the night shift from 5:30 p.m. to 5:30 a.m. The center is staffed 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

They do far more than take down the information from callers and send police. They are the frontline for officer safety and monitor the radio waves listening for traffic stops, fire activity and search-and-rescue missions.

At any point during a shift, a dispatcher can be taking a 911 call and walking someone through administering CPR in their left ear and monitoring an officer making a traffic stop in their right. They have to be engaged in both conversations at the same time and dispatch the correct people.

“I’ve been doing this 20-plus years,” said Lucia Schirard, a dispatcher. “The trick is multi-tasking.”

Dispatchers are an elite bunch with a specific set of skills, most notably a “split-ear” where they can listen and understand two conversations at the same time. And you either have it, or you don’t.

Kara Abdella became a dispatcher nine years ago and had no idea what she was getting herself into. A friend she worked with at Escalante Middle School recommended she put in an application, and Abdella was hired shortly after.

“I got the job not really knowing what it was. I just fell into it, and thank God I did,” she said.

Dispatchers undergo 14 weeks of rigorous training where they learn the codes of each call, how to work the complex computer system that extends onto five screens per workstation and get integrated into handling the radio, phones and computer systems all at once.

They also get training on how to handle specific types of calls and guide someone over the phone to administer first aid or respond to someone calling in saying they are suicidal.

“My goal is to keep them on the phone until an officer gets there. Sometimes I make it. Sometimes I don’t,” Abdella said.

It’s those life-or-death calls that can wear on them long after they hang up. Officers sometimes will check in on them to see how they’re holding up after an especially difficult phone call, and the dispatchers can go to the debriefings that are mandatory for police after a call has ended in a death.

The dispatchers rarely know how a situation was resolved, but the need to know fades.

“I always wanted to know what happened to them and how everything ended up, and as time went on, I realized I had done my job,” said Susanne Meyers, operations supervisor for the Durango-La Plata Emergency Communications Center.

It’s not just emergencies being called in. Dispatchers get plenty of calls from smoke-alarm monitoring agencies.

Last year, DFRA responded to more than 600 false-alarm calls, said Marshal Karola Hanks. About half of those were caused by people doing construction near an alarm, causing the dust to set it off, or burning popcorn.

Residents have about 2 minutes to get the alarm off before a monitoring agency calls dispatch and notifies them. The agency has an address and the location of the fire alarm, but it has no way of knowing if it’s actually an emergency or not.

Because of the high volume of false-alarm calls, DFRA has started a policy where residents get two free false alarms a year. If the alarm goes off again after the second time and it’s not an emergency, the resident is charged a $200 fee.

The money goes into the general fund to reimburse the agency, Hanks said.

While the agency appreciates people calling in when they see smoke, it would be helpful if they pull over and get a good look at what they’re seeing before calling dispatch so they’re sending the appropriate response team, Hanks said.

Abdella and Schirard echoed that observation, saying they need people to stay on the line and answer their questions rather than hanging up after giving an address and saying there is a fight in the street.

“I don’t want to send my guys in blind. That’s why we keep people on the phone to get enough information,” Abdella said. “I’m trying to put together information for the police. It changes how they approach the scene.”

The dispatchers and police officers work together closely and develop close bonds through the years. Each officer is identified by a number in the computer logs, but the dispatchers frequently don’t need to hear the number to log the call. They can identify the officers they work with by the sound of their voice.

“Dispatchers and law-enforcement officers are like family. Sometimes we are like a dysfunctional family, but nevertheless, we are family,” said Sgt. Robert Taylor with the Durango Police Department in an email to the Herald.

Despite its challenges and the unenviable hours, every dispatcher interviewed said they wouldn’t consider another career.

“It’s a rewarding, tough job. You feel like you’re making a difference,” Schirard said.

jdahl@durangoherald.com

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