911 Dispatch – A Newbie’s Journey

Stephanie Minott, 911 Emergency Dispatcher/Communications Officer, Cumberland County RCC

Stephanie-2This is a story of 18 weeks of 911 dispatcher training. My hope is to inspire more potential dispatchers, enlighten trainers and bring hope to those already into training. I will hit my 2 year anniversary in November of this year and that amazes me! I am still learning on a daily basis. My heart is in the right place now. Every day is an adventure, I love my job!

It started November 11th, 2014. When I walked through the double doors (after I was buzzed in similar to a jail setting), I was at the peak of excitement. The job of all jobs. Great opportunities. A huge public safety family and so much more.

What I didn’t know is the tremendous amount of information and detail I would soon be cramming into the space between my ears. There is a picture that our society mentally paints of what a dispatcher does… I was no exception. Phones ring, trucks go, help arrives, people are saved, and fires are extinguished. This is what happens right? LORD HAVE MERCY! There is so much more.

Did you know there are 18 towns we service? Do you know how many police, fire and EMS personnel that includes? NEITHER DID I! Did you know when we have an issue in one town; it may include 3 more towns? And, that we have “shared” fire apparatus with these towns? And that the fire tones need to go out on all the frequencies if there is shared equipment on the call?? NEITHER DID I!!

If that wasn’t enough to scare me away, I had 3 weeks of classroom training to get a base knowledge. When week 1 was done, I questioned my sanity and almost didn’t go back. Amber Alert, METRO, NCIC, ETC, EMD, 911 (….you get the idea). My head spun, my brain felt like it would explode and I cried… and cried… and cried. By week 3 I wanted to puke every time I thought about answering the phone. How was I supposed to keep hundreds of deputies and patrolman straight? How was I supposed to keep up with the veterans firing info to me over the radio as I panicked? What was I thinking?

The Real Deal

In the blink of an eye, the classroom time was over. Now the dynamics of the “center” are tackled with gusto… or fear, depending on your perspective. Keep in mind; you walk into a good size room with 7 to 9 people at any given time. There are 2 “pods” that divide the room, one side fire/EMS dispatch, the other is police side. We all take calls and dispatch calls, but it will depend on that day’s assignment from the shift supervisor. As a trainee, you will need to learn both disciplines … yup; I said both because they are TOTALLY different.

Am I going to make red lights or blue lights go today? Which anxiety or fear will be at the keyboard disguised as a body for 12 hours? My first day sitting at a fire desk… what a mess! Phones ringing, radios talking, phones ringing, tests to take, phones ringing, lists to study, phones ringing, calls to enter, phones still ringing… PHEW! Only 11 hours to go! I can do this…

We trudge through the day. The look of anxiety on my FTO’s (Field Training Officer) face  was as priceless as my own. She just so happens to be my supervisor as well! For the purposes of this narrative, we will call her Wonder Woman. Please do not misunderstand any of my previous comments. We are truly blessed to have the training we do in order to prepare for dispatch; however, there is no training that will keep you from throwing up or peeing your pants. Sorry guys, maybe we can work that into the next session.

As the day progressed, we took calls from the “Public Safety Line” as I was not trained for 9-1-1 emergency calls yet. Those may be harder then 9-1-1 calls. My dog is missing, is there trash pickup, I need to order Chinese, my kid’s nose is runny, and is there school and so on. You get the idea.

These all seem so trivial at first. Then you get the elderly lady that just wants a phone number and she can’t see well enough to read her phone book…YES I said PHONE BOOK! So, you have the tool and you provide a number….not a big deal…until she thanks you for being so kind and that she is sorry to have bothered you…and you smile. Moving on in the day just got a little easier. But I have yet to even scratch the surface of this job. In general, you are simply learning to function in controlled chaos. Specifically, you are learning one important skill at a time without realizing it.

Controlled Chaos- Defined

Days begin and end as I progress. In between, I learn, I struggle and I come back. What I come back to is always the same. My teammates working their magic to keep the public safe, the officers safe and above all keep things in control. It is like a chorus that belts out a tune with the smallest of effort. Can I be part of this someday? Actually multi-task and be successful? Will I have the coveted “room awareness” that they all speak of? Someday, perhaps.

Until then, I learn to function in this “controlled chaos” environment. What that means is:  I learn how to transfer that public safety call to the correct department, but never before making sure they do not have an emergency. I learn to input each call, with the correct address, LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION! I can get you help all day long if I know where you are even if I don’t know your name or what you need. (This may be printed on my headstone when I pass.) I have learned that getting that location – and how – may not be as simple as you may think. The computer is smart, but only if you utilize your tools. I happen to be geographically challenged, this was and still is a hurdle I have to jump every day… but it’s getting better… USE YOUR TOOLS!

Eventually, the tasks I struggled with start to flow and I learn to blend those into the next. The cycle is never ending. Ask any dispatcher you have the opportunity to speak with. If you are not learning something new, it may be time to retire.

Phones start to become easier, not easy, just easier. No rest for the wicked though… time to throw in the radios and see how crazy they can really make you!

Radios are truly a beast of another world, maybe similar to Alien, Tremor or even nasty creatures from Men in Black. Some days I could picture the creature on the other end of the box… it isn’t pleasant. But, this too must be overcome. Challenging as it may be, Wonder Woman has told me that I would develop the “radio ear” which gave me more images to stuff into my already crammed brain.

Many of the officers and deputies are truly veterans, stuck in 10 code land from which there is no return. This leads to another list that I don’t need to “memorize” but I should become “familiar” with. What does that even mean? How do you “familiarize” yourself with a list that large? As it turns out, there are some pretty important codes on that list… who knew! I didn’t. But boy I realized quickly that I better take note and pay attention. As I mentioned before, in case you forgot, the radio talks a lot and you need to know what it is saying at all times. Wonder Woman was not really asking me to do this, it was more like a “hey you better pay attention, or it will be a problem”.

The Academy

Yes, there is an Academy.

It is the Criminal Justice Academy which we attend for 4 different classes. These take place in between our field training depending on when the classes are offered and where there is room. If you are lucky, you are able to get the first 3 classes out of the way early into training. If not, some of it will seem boring or redundant. I was lucky and able to get into all but one class early on.

The academy is only about an hour away, but in the winter, staying up there is advisable. Class starts at 8 a.m. sharp and guaranteed there will be a hold up, snow storm or accident of some sort if you try to commute. The first week was quite an experience. I stayed at the academy for ETC school which lasts a week. Myself and the 2 other trainees went in with excitement! Advantage to the other 2 girls, they had been there previously, I had not.

The week actually flew by. Class was excellent and we did not attend so late in training that we were bored. If you have never been to the academy, there is rumor that it is haunted. Doubtful, but I went on a ghost hunt anyway. What I heard and observed was nothing. What I heard once I played back the video we had could cause a tinge of doubt in your mind. You can be the judge if you get a chance to roam the abandoned 4th floor.

There will be two more classes at the academy before we finish training. EMD and NG911. They are not as long but require as much effort if not more. The absolute worst aspect of the training was waiting to get that coveted letter stating you passed! It takes forever!! OK, so maybe it only takes 4 weeks or so, but it seems like forever! Once they arrive, it is pure relief… I am semi official.

The last class will not be taken until after I have been signed off from training and will be the final gold star.

Learn, Learn, Learn

In my mind, week 4 through 13 should have been easier… should have been. No. They were hard, they were trying and they were pretty intense. Training started with the basics. Intro to the day boss and 2nd FTO, learn the system, navigate the screens and get the calls in correctly. Sounds fairly easy and straight forward, but it was clear as mud! Accuracy, not speed. Speed comes with time. OK… how much time? A question I would ask myself on a daily and sometimes hourly basis.

We are put with an FTO that will be an extra limb, literally, for the next 14 weeks. My main FTO just happened to be Wonder Woman as well, thank God! She is, was, fantastic! No sarcasm, I could not have been paired with a better match. She was completely in tune to the way I learn.

The training started on the fire side. 911 calls are directed to fire side first and then will default to police side if needed. Because I had not been to my EMD certification yet, I can answer the 911 line but cannot go through the medical protocols yet. Wonder Woman had a phone that was connected to my 911 and would break in as soon as the nature of the call became a medical emergency. One would think that would make me less anxious… no… not even close. As soon as my 911 would ring, the emotional response was similar to this… ”there is fire in the kitchen, oh wait, it’s spreading to the living room, never mind…MY DAMN HOUSE IS ON FIRE!” … yup.

Once I was “okay” at fire dispatch, I was put with a specific fire side trainer. Truthfully, after several weeks of being with Fire Dispatcher Mike, I felt better, not great, but better. I was catching on to radio traffic, units were starting to click in my brain and I was learning to get the priorities better organized. Miles and miles to go, but I could at least see the trees through the forest.

A few weeks later, I came out of the fire side with a new perspective on multi-tasking. What I perceived as multi-tasking and what multi-tasking is for the dispatch world is like comparing the local church steeple to the Eiffel Tower. Picture yourself in a room with 15 crazed toddlers, 25 drunk adults and 10 hyper dogs. And you need to keep all of them calm and controlled without missing any communication from them. That may get you close to a busy day at a communications center.

Why did I stay? A question I asked myself on a daily basis. The simple answer, it is my passion. And I have the best support system. Wonder Woman and Day Boss are 2 reasons that I did not give up after week 1 on the fire side. Day Boss; he is funny, he is smart, he is full of knowledge and he knows me well. He was the teeter to my totter. He can be a real pain, but I am fully aware of the reason. Things become clear to me when he teaches me.

Wonder Woman; she was my voice of reason. She beat the anxiety out of me. Almost. She was the Ying to my Yang. She keeps me steady, stable. She is human and reminds me that so am I. When I screwed up on a call, she would help me fix it and understand that it CAN BE FIXED. When I needed to know WHY I was doing something in order to understand it, she always had the answer. They both see my potential and reinforce why I chose this path.

I value the two of them more than I probably let show.

And Then Comes PD …

Wonder Woman was my FTO for the PD side stint. She was a trooper, more so than I was. It was hectic, with different priorities and radio traffic. Officers have different personalities. Each agency has quirks. So much so, that there is a list to keep track of the weirdness.

Weeks flew by, more lessons learned, new tasks to conquer, hurdles climbed. A list was started for goals. Each day we have the opportunity to make our own comments in our training log. I rarely took advantage. My advice to you is do not forgo the opportunity to record your thoughts and activity in a daily log. I wished I had more often.

Days passed and things were going OK. Then I crashed and burned. The day prior to the entry below was horrific. My birthday was the 24th, Happy Flipping Birthday!

The world caved around my ears and I literally forgot every single thing I was taught for the last 11 weeks. Simple things! Easy things! What happened? I left work crushed. My home is 8 minutes from work. I got home 25 minutes later. It was terrible. Wonder Woman was my rock to lean on and flotation device to keep my head above water. I thought about what she would do, what she would say, how she would handle it? Way better than I did, but those thoughts kept me going. Sleep came that night, but not easily. Phones rang in my head, keyboards turned into black holes that wouldn’t let me type and radios zapped me every time I touched them. But I woke up ready to push through. Not sure how or why, but I did.

This is what I wrote the next morning:

Notes entered in my Training Doc 1/23/2015
While I feel like I am making some progress, it is still very frustrating being unable to multi task as I should. Working on different ways to improve it, slow process…

The radio is getting easier for me to hear and understand. Still a long way to go.

Call taking is easier, still many scenarios I have yet to encounter, so I still find myself unable to answer public safety lines without asking a ton of questions at times. Feels very uncomfortable still , but getting better. 911 is a struggle for me. I can answer and EMD but I continue to try and find a way to not be so anxious when I pick up. Breathe; reason out the priority, etc.

Working all this out in my head, constant questioning if I have what it takes. Hoping things fall into place soon.

Prioritize your calls
Work on feedback on PD radio
Get a rhythm
Work on listening to the radio and the caller on the line
Utilize my tools more

As you can see, despair can be with you but disappear as quickly if you let it. Anger can take over. Frustration can take over. Don’t let it. The road we are traveling is paved with opportunity. Soak it up. Leave the rest behind.

Putting ItTogether in the FINAL 4 Weeks

I won’t say that the last couple of weeks have been smooth. On the contrary, I have learned more about myself and my abilities then I care to admit. Just when you think you may be gaining strides, you get smacked in the forehead in classic V8-commercial fashion. The simple things have remained so, but the added tasks thrown in are somewhat of a struggle. My good qualities and abilities are reinforced by the staff and my supervisors daily. This is a plus and appreciated. However, what I have discovered is that I hold myself to such a high standard that I may be creating my own monster. Now, how do I fix it? Is it repairable? I am told yes so I will dig in and figure it out. I have come too far to lay down now.

Let’s review the last week. My schedule mirrored my 2nd FTO. This was quite perfect, it is all days. The downside, he challenges me to the same high standard I hold myself to. Maybe this is good, maybe this is bad. So far, it’s a split decision.

Wednesday… came and went, thank God… it was a disaster. Things were going smoothly early into the 12 hour shift… then 911 rang. It all went bad, I should have gone home. Business lines, check… radios, check… tone a call, check… 911, uncheck. How do people not know where they live or where they are? 911 is my Achilles heel. Anxiety floods, tunnel vision sets in and everything hits the fan. Call me on the business line and tell me you have an emergency and things go slick. Call me on 911 with your emergency and good luck. Radios disappear, multi-tasking escapes and the whirlwind ensues.

I have had two days of long discussions with my FTO, some of which involved the strategic placement of my home safe and how to ensure I am never robbed… don’t ask. Not sure how we got there, but it was a funny moment! He knows we can fix this and I trust him. The support from my peers is unending, for that I am grateful. I am his enigma. He has a challenge on his hands and very little time to fix it. Let’s see how it goes.

Thursday… started great. I came back. Step 1 accomplished. My radios talked, I answered. 911 rang and I took a structure fire call. Focused, correct info and my teammate dispatched it. I listened and learned. The day was going well. Another 911 call… all good. Then it happened. Twice, in a row. Both, for lack of a better word… disasters. First one was in my coverage area. Tunnel vision. I didn’t stop to dispatch it. Call was good, actions not so much. Why? The caller was in no danger and I had time. But I didn’t do it. The 2nd one… no better. At the start I made an error and was unable to recover my calm and composure. Over the edge I went. Like a raft in Niagara Falls.

My FTO “went over” the 2 calls with me. He misinterpreted the tears he saw streaming down my face. I made sure he was well aware they were not for him or for his talk with me. They were mine, for my frustration, for my anger, for my disappointment… in myself. These were not the little-girl-having-a-tantrum tears. They were the “OMG am I ever going to get this???!” frustrated with myself, tears. What I cared about was getting my head back in the game.
Thursday night I went home. I watched the races. Cuddled with my 2 dogs, my husband and my step daughter. Then I went to sleep. Blissful sleep… to forget and recharge after hours of my mind spinning and wondering if I would go back.

On Friday I went back. The day came and went like I never missed a beat for the last few days. My mind was set that this was going to happen. Fear cannot keep me down. Tunnel vision…bring it. And they did. And I conquered.

2 Weeks to Go!

It would be a total lie if I told you that I am not nervous as a cat on a hot tin roof about the next couple weeks. However, it isn’t the end of the world. The last 4 days went really well. My Deputy Director (God bless her!) and Wonder Woman took me in to make sure I was OK. Do you get that kind of support at your job? I dare to say you do not. This week has been much smoother, my nerves less frazzled, and my confidence much higher.

County Sheriff has been, and will be, the focus until the big sign-off on March 16th. Monday was rough. New voices, new numbers, but that is not a valid excuse. I left frustrated. It’s a good thing my county desk trainer has very little hair. Jacoby has been a sport, but I know it’s frustrating for him as well. His report for the day may be slightly colorful. I believe at one point, I heard him say “you are killing me today” and he was not wrong. My first action when I left, call the rock. Wonder Woman let me vent to her and it helped. It didn’t cure the anxiety over why I was so off, but it helped me focus. New plan is to get a scanner at home. Listen. Learn. Focus. Gain more split ear. Stop being so anxious. Stop anticipating what the radio is going to say. Roll with it.

Wednesday went well, until 4 p.m. I will not bother to elaborate on the day. Some things are not worth repeating….ever.

Home, sleep and come back in. It is getting down to the wire and I may be in slight panic mode. My training documents say this is week 17. My brain says it is week 5-ish. The meeting this morning with Wonder Woman and Jacoby helped. We met at the beginning of my shift and I was a little emotional which I was not happy about. They were very understanding and willing to talk me through it. A plan was developed to get me on track hoping that the last week I have will help nail down the multi-tasking/prioritizing skills. My fingers are crossed.

Giving Up Is Not in My Blood

Tomorrow I will be riding with a county sheriff to observe. What is the procedure for the traffic stop? What do they see in their vehicles? How is the call dispatched compared to what the deputy can see in the call? Do they see our notes? What is the timing between call entry and when it is dispatched? The hope is that I will gain a better perspective of the deputy’s job in order to be more efficient on my end. Again, fingers and toes crossed.

Down to the Wire… the Last Week!

While I feel that the scanner has helped, I am not at the confidence level I was hoping for. The veterans of 911 dispatch continue to boost my confidence. It helps to hear kind words and encouragement, but I need to believe it. Yes, I am doing OK but not where I should be. County desk has shaken my confidence to the core. My ride along gave me a better perspective, but not confidence.

There are 3 major calls that will cause a trainee mass amounts of anxiety. They are a CPR call, a structure fire and a high speed chase. These will cause instant nausea, panic and sometimes, a blue screen of death stare (you will get that reference if you have ever used a computer).

This is week 18 and it is ideal that a trainee gets all of these before they are signed off. It doesn’t usually happen. Notice I said usually… nothing about my training has been normal. On Thursday I was doing my one day at fire to keep up the rhythm. Check the structure fire off the list. In a town that is a challenge for a simple EMS call, this was going to be my ultimate training test. The fire pod was fantastic. They helped me, but did not do my job for me. There were huge amounts of guidance from all around me. I was having a great time. Then it was over. I looked around wondering what just happened. It’s over already? Hey! That wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it was going to be! Maybe I can do this…

Then Friday came. Back to County I went. There were routine calls and the day went fairly smooth. Until someone decided it would be cool to run from a traffic stop. Who does that? Why would you even try? But they did… and on my watch. I was not impressed, but what can you do. Roll with it. The chase lasted for a short 7 miles, went through 2 towns and caused me mass amounts of nausea and stress. Apparently that did not come through on the radio and I thank God for that. Was it smooth? No. Was it exactly as I imagined it? No. Did I do my job? Yes! It was an experience I needed to go through and I will be better with the next one. I’m not sure if Jacoby can handle watching me work another chase, but he is learning with me as well. It is extremely frustrating for a trainer to sit back and let us go. Keeping that in mind will help your relationship with your trainer.

At the final hour I will work County again. There is so much still to learn and I fear that a sign off may not be in my future, or at least next week. This career I have taken on is the most demanding of my life. It has also been the most rewarding experience of my life.

Good bye Training Wheels… Signed Off!

Many times in my life I have felt that I was meant to do something for people, but I could never really figure out what. For years I volunteered for a sexual assault hotline. This was my trigger. I knew that I wanted to help but I was not built for the particular type of stress this brought. Nights were spent on the phone trying to guide callers. Most of those calls would stick with me and are still with me today. Getting past them has been a process. Slowly I will let go of certain ones, but never completely. I have been told by many friends that they are not sure how I could do it. Neither was I. But that didn’t matter. I did it. And I am proud of it.

I no longer volunteer on that hotline. It is something that I may consider again in the future, but for now I will focus on the Yellow Brick Road of Public Safety. It is paved with men and women that risk their lives on a daily basis. I am more than happy to join my co-workers to keep them coming home safe every night. As with any job, you will encounter many personalities. Some are good, some are bad. They all, however, are human with families and loved ones. Keep this in mind when the response from the radio is not, for lack of better words, politically correct or friendly.

There is always trepidation when stepping out of one’s comfort zone. The fear and anxiety of a new journey can be overwhelming. Since November 11, 2014, I have experienced many emotions. By far, the worst has been anxiety. No job I have ever worked was this stressful. No job I ever worked was this rewarding. The “family” I have been welcomed into is amazing. Although my story is filled with anxiety, stress and many down moments, please do not, for one minute think I would change anything. The good moments, the rewarding moments and the highs far outweigh it all. This is the opportunity I have waited for. I have found my “work home”.

My paperwork may say I am official on the fire side, but I am far from taking off my training wheels. I am due to be signed off on the police side at the end of this week. Over the past few days, I have gained confidence in my abilities and so has Jacoby. It is a good feeling finally. Maybe the switch has flipped. There is a mountain of learning to still do, but I’m ready.
Most of my teammates have confirmed they are still learning daily. Hopefully, a few years from now, I will come in to work, sit down at a desk and say “I got this” and mean it. For now, I will continue to listen, learn and take in the knowledge given to me. I will give 150% at all times. I will succeed.

To all of you considering a career in public safety, pursue it, try it. I wish you luck (no sarcasm this time) and happiness.

Welcome to our “family”!

In March 2015, we lost a beautiful soul from the public safety family. Brittney, 28 years of age, was a 911 dispatcher from the Portland RCC. She never gave up. She kept a positive attitude in the face of an incurable disease called cancer. She lived life to the fullest. She married her soul mate on Valentine’s Day. Always let her attitude be a reminder to push ahead and not look back. If she could face it head on, then our problems and anxiety are nothing in the grand scheme. Thank you, Brittney. Rest easy, we will take it from here.