Emergency dispatchers rely on their instincts, the smallest clues and a determination to protect the police and firefighters they direct, said Lindsey Sims, a Waxahachie emergency dispatcher. She has been with the city as a dispatcher for almost five years and shared her side of the emergency services in the week’s Behind the Badge.
The Daily Light continues its weekly “Behind the Badge” series, to be published each Sunday, in an effort to get to know the officers that serve and protect us on a daily basis. Our goal is to help the community learn more about the people behind the badge.
What is it like being with the city of Waxahachie as a dispatcher for almost five years? I can’t think of a more stressful job one could have than being a 911 operator, but is it every day wall-to-wall excitement, or do you have up times and down times?
We actually have three circuits in the 911 dispatch office that we work, and every day we rotate through a different station. One day we could be working phones, taking 911 calls from the public and transferring them to the appropriate city offices. The next day we could be dealing with fire dispatch, which not only involves fire calls, but involves medical related issues. Then, the third day we could be on the radio speaking with police officers. So every day is different. You’re not doing the same job or function every day. It’s really a team effort and team concept.
What are the calls you receive that make you sit up a little straighter in your seat and you just know those calls will have a little more intensity involved?
We talk to these officers every single day, all day and all night, so we know their voices. Anytime they come across and their voice sounds different, that makes me sit up. If their voice sounds under duress, I usually won’t question it. I’ll dispatch a backup right then. Or when they’re trying to stop a vehicle for a simple speeding or brake light issue, and the officer tells me the vehicle isn’t stopping, that’s when I’ll pull my chair a bit more forward, put my hands on the keyboard and be as ready as I can absolutely be.
When we take a 911 call, and I can hear screaming before I even get the receiver to my ear, those are the times where you really have to block out everything around you and you become focused on every sound coming over the phone. Sometimes, it can be as simple as kids playing on the phone, but unfortunately, most of the time it’s some sort of domestic disturbance.
A lot of the time, especially if it’s a female caller, they will tell us everything is fine, but we don’t know that for sure. We don’t know if the caller has a gun to her head or a knife or weapon involved, and someone is telling them to tell us it’s OK, and hang up. We don’t second-guess that. A lot of our calls are domestic disturbance or domestic violence calls with drugs or alcohol involved, and we’ll dispatch an officer there, simply to be on the safe side.
Obviously, there’s a lot of pressure involved in being the lifeline between the public and fire and police officers. How does that impact your work?
There is no guessing in what we do. You automatically do what you need to do, to get an officer or a member of the public the help they need. We’ll never hesitate to send an officer backup if we think they need it. They always have the option of having that help stand down, but bad situations can develop in a matter of seconds, and as the old saying goes, every second counts.
We constantly check the officer’s status, and sometimes they’ll get annoyed with us because we check their status so much, but those are our guys. We’re the only ones that can communicate with them. It’s always said that dispatch is the heart of the department, and it really is.
It’s a lot of responsibility; a lot of awareness about where that officer is and what you know and don’t know that will drive your actions.
You try to put yourself in that officers’ shoes, in a situation where they’re waiting for backup. In the heat of the moment, you work more off of instinct, experience and procedure than anything else, but we’re always going to lean toward the side of caution and safety.
How many dispatchers work out of the center?
We work 12-hour shifts, just like the officers. In total, we have 10 dispatchers. Two will work the 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. shift, then two that will work the 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift, and one mid-shift dispatcher that will work from noon to midnight. Then we are grouped into an ‘A’ side and ‘B’ side, so that ‘A’ side may work Friday, Saturday and Sunday, then off Monday and Tuesday, on again Wednesday and Thursday and off Friday, Saturday and Sunday. ‘B’ side is just butterflied, so that they are on while ‘A’ side is off. This gives us one weekend off every two weeks.
What’s the most important component of your job?
Information. Without a doubt. When we take a 911 call, every sound we hear is important to us. Is there noise in the background? Are people yelling? Is the caller inside or outside? Is the caller calm or hysterical? These are all important, because this is information we pass on directly to the responding officers, and we know from experience that those officers want all of the information we can possible give them. Nothing is unimportant.
That’s also one of the most frustrating parts of this job. Because a caller is hysterical or under stress, sometimes the information they give us is inaccurate, simply because their perception of things going on around them may be altered by their emotional state. So when an officer arrives on the scene, the situation may be completely different than what was described to us.
A lot of times, as responding officers get closer to the scene, they’re calling, wanting more information, and we have to tell them we’re working to get it. It’s tough, but because we’re based out of the police station, officers will drop by with paperwork, and they get a chance to see us work. So, they’re aware of the obstacles and challenges.