It takes a special kind of person to be a 911 dispatcher, says Dispatch Supervisor Jennifer Pitt, who has worked at the Multi-Agency Communications Center for about 17 years.
“It’s not for the weak-hearted,” Pitt said. “It really takes a special kind of person to do this job.”
There are just more than two dozen of those special kinds of people at the comms center, also referred to as the MACC or MACC 911. Each day they take hundreds of calls and connect callers with first responders during emergencies, working to coordinate getting aid to Grant County residents to keep them safe and healthy, Pitt said. While the job is rewarding, dispatchers often are working to help people going through some of the most difficult experiences of their lives. Making that day better takes a lot of effort and the ability to switch quickly from one task to another, pay attention to multiple sources of information simultaneously, work with the dispatching system and do it all while providing empathetic and detailed support to callers and emergency personnel .
Pitt said MACC provides services for about 16 fire departments, nine law enforcement agencies and two ambulance services. Frequently MACC personnel are handling multiple calls simultaneously, she said.
One of the primary sources of information dispatchers interact with is the people that call to report an incident requiring fast attention from the right people.
“Because those people, when they’re on the phone with us, they are our eyes to what’s going on,” Pitt said.
Pitt said callers can often get frustrated with the number of questions a dispatcher asks, but those questions aren’t without purpose. Those details on location, patient symptoms, the number of people present or whether someone in a situation is armed help MACC staff keep first responders informed and safe.
“Our job is to get them home to their families every day, and all of us take that very seriously,” Pitt said. “Our job is to help the community, of course, when they call, but it’s also to take care of our (first responder) units.
“We need to know what we’re sending (first responders) into,” she said.
The agencies answering those calls appreciate MACC’s work.
“They are our lifeline,” wrote Moses Lake Police Chief Kevin Fuhr. “They are the first line of help when someone calls during an emergency and navigate officers to the scene while providing crucial information to responding officers.”
Leslie Thompson, owner of Protection 1 EMS in Quincy, said MACC has provided important support.
“For me, they’ve been amazing partners,” Thompson said. “They’ve helped us out so much.”
“Huge, huge partners, for law enforcement,” said Captain Ryan Green of the Quincy Police Department. “Essentially they’re that first line.”
Green said many times the dispatchers disconnect from a call once the first responders arrive, and don’t always know about a call’s resolution.
“They don’t get the full story,” Green said.
That can lead to more stress as a result, he said.
MACC staff offer one another a lot of support to achieve the goals of keeping the community and first responders safe, said DT Donaldson, director of the MACC. The job is difficult, he said, and can often be emotionally taxing. Sometimes, despite their best efforts, dispatchers have people call in for nearly impossible situations in which someone dies or is hurt severely. Those days are hard from a psychological standpoint and can lead to many of the same traumas faced by firefighters, EMTs and police officers.
Donaldson said that sometimes the dispatcher and the help they provide – that voice on the phone – is what gets the caller through the situation.
“There’s a very human element to it,” he said.
Fortunately, he said, Washington state’s Senate Bill 5555, which was signed into law by Governor Jay Inslee on March 31, sets dispatchers up for better support by recognizing them as first responders.
“When I started back in my early twenties, you know, handling all those emergency calls was fine,” Pitt said. “But as I got older – you get married, you have kids, you go through all these life changes of your own – and now, all of a sudden, these calls that didn’t bother me before are now bothering me. So, you have all these stages in life you go through and it takes this huge emotional toll on you.”
While being able to relate to callers overall is a good thing, it can lead to dispatchers sharing the traumas their callers are going through. Prior to SB 5555, benefits available to other first responders weren’t available to MACC staff. Now, they have access to PTSD benefits through Workers’ Compensation, along with other benefits.
Overall, though, the MACC team doesn’t just look to the state for benefits. They look to one another for camaraderie and support, Donaldson said. He said that a good day for him is when the team works together in unison to help people. Those moments when an officer is asking for something while the dispatcher is in the middle of something else, so a team member steps in and says, “I’ll handle that for you,” is one of the best moments in the day.
Liz Bridgeman, one of MACC’s dispatchers, agreed that teamwork is a big part of the job and vital for keeping the public safe. Bridgeman said she’s been a dispatcher for nine years as of April and she enjoys the job, which was a bit like drinking from a firehose when she first started – the job being much different than operating a tow truck, her prior job.
“I had worked with dispatchers before because they would call me out for tows,” Bridgeman said. “But I hadn’t done anything as far as the dispatch side before this.”
Becoming a dispatcher has a serious lead time and learning curve, Bridgeman said. Dispatchers need to not only know the computer systems they work in but also have to learn radio communications, how to switch very quickly between tasks and the geography of the areas they serve – among other things.
Pitts said the training process can take anywhere from four to six months, depending on the person and their aptitudes. The training and realities of the job are challenging and roughly half of trainees don’t make it through the training to become dispatchers.
“So, whether or not it’s because of the job itself is too hard, whether the training is too hard – we really can’t pinpoint exactly what it is,” Pitt said. “We just know they choose to walk away.”
For those special people who stick it out though, the job is very rewarding, Pitt, Donaldson and Bridgeman said.
Bridgeman said one of her best days on the job was when clicked and she realized her calls were flowing the way everything she’d been amazed to see dispatchers she’d shadowed during training made their calls flow.
Donaldson said his best days on the job are when the dispatch team takes care of the public and officers seamlessly as a group.
Pitt said what makes a good day on the job is different for each dispatcher, but for her, it’s when things are slow.
“Because if we’re not busy, then that means all in the world is okay,” she said.