Portland Bureau of Emergency Communications

Submitted by Roseanna Chambliss (ODOT)

First – thank you ALL, a tremendous collaboration of absolutely amazing people, in all parts. You are your community’s unsung heroes. If you’re reading this and aren’t a 911 dispatcher, thank you for supporting them, acknowledging their skills and service.

I nominate Portland, Oregon’s 911 center, BOEC. Portlandia is a show known by many, and true in many regards, though I can’t say I’ve seen more than one full episode.

The homeless issue here is rampant, at best. Mental health crises take so much of their time and attention; people playing chicken in the freeway lanes, jumping off any of a dozen or more bridges day after day; getting high in the parks, streets, businesses…people here run around with machetes, literally. The number ofย  people who are, ahem, ‘self soothing’ near parks and schools, or trying to make babies in public, or just running around naked…I hear it all the time, because it happens, all the time! Oh Portlandia.

I monitor their calls, listening all day, sometimes 14 hour shifts, to the things they can and can’t respond to because their queues are mind-boggling. If there are 2 days in a month the police or fire units aren’t begging people to hold over for minimum coverage, I’d be surprised.

This center remains understaffed, year after year, at about 70%, with dispatchers eligible to retire staying for the good of the community. There’s virtually no way to get staffing back up, let alone retain people. This is their ‘normal’. They actually find a way to have fun, even on the air.

The politicians permit ‘rallies,’ (I and the general public call them riots) simultaneously, from diametrically opposed groups within a block of each other. They send dozens of officers to surround the blocks with police tape, and tell the officers to not get involved – they’re hobbled. The dispatchers still have to take the calls, get the same information, provide the same service, knowing what the result will be. Send more police, medics, fire. So they do, again, and again.

They dispatch police, fire and medical for city and county jurisdictions, and have marine units, air units, K9s, and a bunch of special teams. They’re hands down the busiest PSAP in the state. I’ve only sat with them once, and yes, I’m in awe because I was once a secondary PSAP operator. When I moved here, I didn’t even try to work there, and I’m so glad I didn’t! I couldn’t take it for a week!

These men, women, and theys, which may apply, are so incredible. The voices, despite the ridiculous chaos are our city’s true constant. They know their inbox is overflowing the moment they log in. They know it’s going to be a circus, but they plug in, suck it up, type and talk.

They try to staff the fire and police units, but they’ll work with what they’ve got. And they’ve got me. I dispatch incident response on state highways. I take anything I can, debris, stalls, crashes, and I’ll watch cameras to advise them of their access to save a few moments. I’ll activate signs to cover them if I can’t send someone. When I can take a bit off their plate, I hear gratitude in their voice, even when they’re slammed. When they ask me to look for someone without clothes, I do it for them, and (pray a bridge will obstruct my view).

They worked a mass casualty incident with the same constancy as if it was a regular fire. The tap out certainly took longer, but I knew they were calling all hands. It was a construction snafu in which a natural gas line was struck and a high occupancy city block exploded. It’s taken well over a year to rebuild those homes and businesses. I don’t know how many of them were impacted by it, but it was tragic, and felt by so many in our city.

But even if they didn’t deal with nonsensical politically inspired incidents, they still have burglaries, stolen vehicles, fights, people shooting people, crashes, fires, marine rescues, babies to deliver, and a city to protect. When the earthquake comes, and it will, they’ll be there.

They’re the voices behind the badges, trying to do everything for everybody, every day, with everything they have…then they’ll take the next call.

They deserve lunch. They deserve a beer (but they’ll love getting lunch)!

You all do.

Happy dispatcher week.