April 8-14, 2018 is National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week.
Here at The Lincoln County News, we listen to our local public safety telecommunicators – we call them dispatchers – every day on the scanner to pick up tips about crashes, crimes, and fires.
Despite the constant presence of their voices in the newsroom, we rarely interact with the dispatchers at the Lincoln County Communications Center. When we report on an emergency, we talk to fire chiefs and police officers.
What challenges do the dispatchers face? What happens inside their brick bunker at the county complex in Wiscasset?
Joe Westrich is Lincoln County’s communications director and a veteran dispatcher. He started work at the communications center as a part-time dispatcher in 1993 and worked his way up to full-time dispatcher in 1994, supervisor in 2003, and director in 2017.
Westrich calls dispatchers the “first first responders.”
“Even though we’re not physically there, we are the first person ‘on scene,’ so to speak,” he said.
What should Lincoln County residents know when they call the communications center?
Well, for one thing, the dispatchers ask a lot of questions.
They do so for a reason, Westrich says. Each dispatcher follows a protocol depending on the type of emergency. The goal is to prepare the firefighters, first responders, or police for what they need to do.
“It does not delay the response of the first responders,” Westrich said. “It provides them more information, better information, consistent information.”
Callers should do their best to remain calm and answer all the questions.
The dispatchers receive special training to interact with very young and very elderly callers. Westrich also visits local schools to teach kids in grades K-3 about the 911 system.
He teaches the kids when to call (for an emergency) and when not to call (for a prank). Perhaps most importantly, he tells the kids to memorize their address and phone number.
He distributes cards with 911 and other important numbers and a space for the kids (or a parent) to write their address.
The education efforts pay off.
A few years back, a 6-year-old called 911 when their grandmother was having difficulty breathing. Westrich credits the kid with saving the grandmother’s life.
Dispatchers often instruct callers in first aid. Lincoln County dispatchers have helped deliver babies and, in one case, helped a restaurant employee save a customer who was choking.
In a situation like this, a dispatcher can save a life. Westrich calls it the most rewarding part of the job, along with “being part of a team” with emergency medical services, firefighters, and law enforcement.
The communications center has 14 employees: Westrich, three supervisors, and 10 dispatchers. Each supervisor also works as a dispatcher, but has administrative duties. These 14 people man the center 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Rob Bickford is one of the three supervisors.
Public safety telecommunications “has gone from being a job to a profession, something you can make a career out of,” Bickford said.
Despite everything the dispatchers do, some in the public think of them as “glorified secretaries,” he said. “It’s a misconception that all we do is answer the phone and talk on the radio.”
Dispatchers undergo extensive training and need multiple certifications. They conduct background checks and contribute to investigations.
Many of Lincoln County’s dispatchers work in EMS, the fire service, or law enforcement in addition to their full-time jobs. This includes Bickford, a former Wiscasset fire chief who still belongs to the department.
“It gives you more respect for both sides, because you can understand the difficulties both sides have,” he said.
Tina Boot has worked as a dispatcher since 1991. She has worked for Boothbay Harbor, Knox County, and the Maine State Police, and is on her second stint with Lincoln County.
She thrives in the fast-paced, unpredictable environment.
“It never gets mundane,” she said during a momentary break in the action Tuesday, April 10. “You never know from day to day what you’re going to have.”
The most difficult part of being a dispatcher is talking to people going through a tragic event.
“We get some hard calls,” Boot said. “Sometimes it’s hard to remove yourself from emotional situations.”
But Boot has stuck with the profession for more than 25 years for a reason.
“I find it personally very rewarding,” she said. “I feel like we are helping people.”
Right now, the communications center is looking for a dispatcher.
Westrich lists the ability to multitask and remain calm under pressure, as well as strong listening skills, as must-haves for the position.
If it sounds like a job for you, check out the ad in this edition. Like Westrich, Bickford, and Boot, you might find it turns into a career.