Caitlin Slette remembers one of her first calls as an emergency dispatcher.
“On my second or third day working on my own, I got a call from someone way out in the county,” she said. “(He) said there was someone at his door who thought his ear had gotten shot off. He kept saying, ‘If he comes in, I’m going to shoot him.’”
Slette was able to keep the caller on the phone, and get emergency services to the scene before he acted on his words. This baptism-by-fire is not abnormal for dispatchers — the first point of contact when someone calls 911. Inside the Umatilla County Sheriff’s Office in Pendleton, the team of 18 dispatchers field calls from 25 different law enforcement and emergency agencies, directing police officers, fire and ambulance services to the places where callers need help. But new dispatchers like Slette, who has worked in the job for nearly a year, go through months of training before they can field emergency calls. They learn the basics — finding out a person’s location, the reason for the call, and if there are any weapons — and the language of law enforcement. Slette said she trained for about three months before being able to take emergency calls on her own.
“Multitasking is one of the biggest challenges,” Slette said. “You just have to watch and familiarize yourself with the system before you start listening.”
There are five phases of training, said Justin Russell, a longtime dispatcher and trainer.
“The first is mostly observation,” he said. “Learning the codes, really just getting familiar with the flow of information.” New dispatchers will have a headset that’s linked to that of a senior employee, and can listen to that person take calls.
From there, Russell said, they learn how to take calls on the non-emergency line and document and enter information. Then they move on to emergency calls, and finally combine all those tasks.
“The most challenging thing is honestly finding time to (train) while still working as a dispatcher,” Russell said. “Trying to train someone to connect the dots that you already see.”
Each dispatcher sits at a desk with seven screens: two connected to the phone lines, three where they enter and access information from various databases, and two that access the radio system. There are usually five or six working at a time, with each person managing a different agency. One person will take care of all emergency and fire agencies, and one dispatcher will be assigned to each police agency. As they receive information about a call, they enter it into the system, where the other dispatchers can view it.
“Even if I’m not covering Umatilla, I can still see their information, because I might interact with them at some point,” Russell said.
After some in-office training, dispatchers will go to a two-week academy, where they’ll learn more call taking, as well as how to dispatch certain emergency situations.
They must learn how to instruct people in CPR over the phone, as well as help deliver babies.
Communications officers also get training for how to give courtroom testimony, as they may be called in for a domestic violence case or a shooting they dispatched.
Some of the more technical aspects of the job, Russell said, come from rote memorization and experience. Dispatchers work with several different databases, such as Law Enforcement Data System. The statewide database can access information about wanted people, stolen vehicles and driver history. As an officer pulls someone over, dispatchers will get to work, pulling up the information for that vehicle, and let the officer know any relevant information. They also have access to a national system, NCIC, where they can check for warrants and other information.
Dispatchers also have to familiarize themselves with the county map — even if they’ve never been to the area, they may have to direct an officer around it.
“I’m not from here, so that was hard for me,” Slette said. “People will say, ‘I’m on this street,’ and I won’t even know what city.”
They communicate with officers using “10 codes.” Common ones include 10-4 — copy — as well as several traffic codes. The code for a mental subject is 10-96, and for a domestic problem, 10-16. For an intoxicated driver, it’s 10-55.
Some things can’t be taught in training, Slette said.
“You still have to work to build the trust of the people in the room with you,” she said. “You get those calls where it takes a little longer to click in, like CPR or when an officer’s been injured. That’s terrifying.”
Dispatcher Kevin Dunham said he continues to get calls he’d never expect.
“I still get surprised when I get a 911 call, and they’re wanting the phone number for a restaurant,” he said.
Many dispatchers say the emotional strain is often overlooked. Though they’re not on the scene of an incident, they’re the first ones to hear about it.
“When I went to my first training to be a dispatcher, they opened up with, ‘You will last in this job five years,’” said Dunham. Though he’s now in his 18th year, Dunham admitted it can take its toll.
“We’re service-oriented people, and someone is truly in need of help,” he said. “If we can talk someone down from considering suicide. A lot of times we’re not successful, but a lot of times we are.”
Communications Sergeant Karen Primmer said one of the toughest parts of the job is the lack of closure — once law enforcement takes over, dispatchers are no longer a part of the call, and don’t know whether something was resolved.
“We sometimes get left out of that conclusion piece,” she said. “We want to hear the rest of the story.”