This week at The Badge Guys, we focus on the “Role of Police Dispatchers in Emergency Operations.” You dial 911 for accessing help in a crisis and expect someone to answer that call. Going beyond just answering the phone, you expect your crisis to be handled because of that call.
How often do people consider the voice, the human being, the person, the employee, the sister or brother receiving that call? Do you know who these people are? Do you care? The Badge Guys do, and are proud to be joined this week by Kristin Kitchen from Facebook’s wildly popular; Diary of a Mad Dispatcher
In honor of the upcoming National Public Safety Telecommunications Week, The Badge Guys feature this special 2-part interview with Kristin. She was kind enough to share her time and “voice” with us. She is the creator and the original “Mad Dispatcher” hosting the popular sounding board at Facebook’s Diary of a Mad Dispatcher.
TBG: What inspired you to be a Dispatcher?
KMK: That is a funny question. This line of work had never really crossed my mind. I never thought about who answered 911 or sent emergency responders out. I came across the opening for 911 Telecommunicator in a general search of the Employment Security Commission website.
Side note, I received notification that I was hired with the U.S. Post Office on the very same day I was notified by the Sheriff’s Office that I was hired with them. It was a hard decision for me to make. I have no doubt I picked the right one.
Thank goodness it turned out to be the perfect fit!
TBG: Fortunate for the first responder community, you chose the path of Dispatcher instead of Postal worker. Although I guess a Facebook page called the Diary of an Angry Letter Carrier would have been equally popular.
TBG: We know the profession is not an easy one, but what does it take to even begin the process? Will you walk us through the process from applying for the position to actually call taking / and dispatching?
KMK: The hiring process with my agency was intensive. I did not hear a word about my application for 3 months. At that time my 911 center was under the Sheriff’s Department.
We were hired under Sheriff’s Standards. When they called me in to interview it was review board style. I was interviewed by a 12 member board, all of them high ranking deputies and one 911 supervisor.
After completing this step, I had to pass a physical, a SBI records check and a 2 hour interview (aka interrogation) with a Detective which included a lie detector test. At that time my agency did not require any type of skill or multi taking testing.
TBG: That is an extensive process, but Dispatchers do have access important information about the public, businesses, and other critical aspects within their jurisdiction. Did the Detective get you to confess? OK, never mind.
TBG: Was there standardized training or an academy you received in order to become a Police Dispatcher?
KMK: I began my career as a 911 Dispatcher 13 years ago. When I began there was no standardized training or academy for me to attend. On my first day I was introduced to the 911 Director who was a very stern leader.
She handed me a brand new headset, pointed out the door to the rest room and the door to the kitchen, then sent me on my way to a senior dispatcher that would teach me how it is done.
My call take FTO was a veteran dispatcher, been there, seen it, conquered it. She showed me how the headset worked, handed me a sheet of 10-codes and Phonetic alphabet list. I took to call taking like a duck to water, I loved it.
I will however admit I rubbed a bald spot in the front of my hair bent over that 10-code list trying to memorize 100 codes and numerous signals in between 911 and non-emergency phone calls coming into the center.
After being released as a 911 call taker I began training on dispatch consoles. I loved every minute of it. So much so that I was told on more than 1 occasion by my disgruntled ex-husband that I would dispatch fire trucks, officers/deputies, EMS units in my sleep every night keeping him awake.
I cleared all the consoles in the dispatch center in exactly 6 months. Times have changed from back then. My agency is no longer under the Sheriff’s department. We have implemented standardized electronic testing for listening, memory, multi-tasking and typing skills.
Our review board is now made up of members of admin, supervisors and floor dispatchers. Our new hires now attend a 5-6 week in-house training class with our Training Coordinator where they learn all the basics before coming to the floor and being assigned to a Training Officer.
TBG: Do most Dispatchers work alone or in teams? What are the benefits of each? Which would you prefer?
KMK: I have worked in the same center my whole career. We have grown in numbers over the years. When I started we were stacked if we had 10 people working the floor, Now we are comfortable with 16 working.
Our center currently Dispatches 6 Law Enforcement agencies, Consolidated fire services for the whole county and EMS services for the whole county. We have a total of 11 dispatch consoles that must be manned at all times, the rest are call takers and 2 supervisors.
We rotate thru the consoles daily so we are up to date on how to dispatch all of them. We work our console as a single dispatcher, however we fall into a team effort when the world crashes down. With the exception of the busiest law consoles, all dispatchers are responsible for answering incoming 911 and non-emergency calls.
I am a bit of a control freak, SHOCKING I know. A dispatcher that wants to be in charge??? So I do prefer to work my console on my own, however I do recognize when I have need of a team effort.
TBG: We know you have received and handled some pretty tough calls for dispatching assistance, do you have one that stands out? Would you be willing to share?
KMK: As a rookie dispatcher I took a call from a man who wanted to end his life. He was a father of 2 girls, he had a wife and he was young with his whole life ahead of him. No one was in the house but him.
He wanted to complete his task before his family returned home. I was his last cry for help in his mind. I stayed on the phone with him while I waited for the Deputies and Medics to arrive at his residence.
If you have ever taken this kind of call you know that 5 minutes feels like 5 hours. So imagine my desperation as I read notes in the call entered by the law dispatcher that they were setting up a command post and calling out a negotiator. Wait? What? Why!!
I calmly remained on the line reasoning with my caller. We had covered many topics as to why ending his life was not the reasonable answer to his problems and the earth shattering effect this would have on his family especially his young daughters. At one point I compared how he felt to a hurricane, the storm is fierce right now but the sun will come back out tomorrow.
My squad then broke out into a whispered rendition of the song The Sun will Come Out Tomorrow from Little Orphan Annie. My supervisor, who had faith in my connection to the caller, convinced the incident commander to let me talk him out so we didn’t have to wait on a negotiator to be called out. I was successful.
He went out the front door unarmed and was taken into custody with no incident. I was later briefed that he was about to be arrested on murder charges and was a suspect in a second murder investigation. He is now serving life in prison on the first charge with all of his appeals exhausted. They were never able to find enough evidence to charge him with the second murder, which is now a cold case.
When I reflected on this call after the fact I wondered if I had known at the beginning of the call what I knew after the call would I have worked as hard? The answer is yes. My job is to provide the first line of emergency response no matter the caller.
The Mother, the drug addict, the abused, the prostitute, the elected official, they all deserve my best.
TBG: How does this make you feel once the call is terminated?
KMK: 911 Dispatchers are often left out of the debriefing loop. Unfortunately, my agency is no exception. While we hear about the debriefings that are arranged for the units we send into the tragic incidents we are not often invited.
In my experience we are an afterthought when one of us mentions that we were not included or invited. “Oh didn’t you get the memo?” It must have been an oversight, yeah that’s it.
We are resilient, we comfort each other, we talk it out, yell it out, scream it out! Sometimes a bottle of wine, a platter of cupcakes, and your best buds can heal anything.
TBG: Do dispatchers experience PTSD?
KMK: You better believe they do. Imagine being blind and defenseless. All you have are your ears to guide you. Many times the screaming and number of voices distort exactly what you can hear.
In the chaos of the open phone line you hear a child crying, a person begging for mercy, an asthmatic’s breaths getting more restricted, or the death rattle of a patient’s atonal breathing.
You are helpless. That feeling of helplessness is devastating. I am the first line of defense and I cannot stop what I hear on the other end of the line. I have had many officers say to me, but you’re not in the line of fire. That is correct I am not in the line of fire but that does not mean I do not suffer from the scene.
My mind can visualize that scene, sometimes much worse than it really is. Then I throw my first responders into the mix and a whole new kind of fear comes into play. It is my responsibility to keep you safe from harm, I need to make sure you return home to your spouse when your tour of duty ends.
Anxiety doubles because I no longer have that open line to hear the scene playing out. I have to wait for someone, anyone on scene to remember to tell us you are safe and secure. You may not see me, you may not feel me, but I am there with you every step of the way.
TBG: Is there anyone (professional, agency point of contact, or Dispatcher’s associations) available for you to talk to about your feelings?
KMK: The only person that really is aware of the stress levels of a dispatcher is a dispatcher. If you have never done this job you have no idea what it involves. We are not just button pushing, Bon-Bon eating, cackling dispatchers.
We are Mothers, Fathers, Mentors, Counselors, Information collectors, The voice of hope or reason, Comforters, and our emergency responders backup among many tasks we perform daily, often time all at once.
TBG: What can be done to change and positively affect the awareness level?
KMK: To change and positively affect the awareness level of dispatcher stress levels would require understanding and respect. As a senior training officer I encourage my rookies to do as many ride-alongs as they can, with all of the agencies we work with.
Put yourself out there on the other end of the mic and see what they endure. This will create a respect and understanding of what their job is out there on the street. It is the same for the emergency services we dispatch.
Come in and do a sit along. I don’t mean on Sunday morning at 0900 hours when there is absolutely nothing going on. Come in when you know the action is, bar closings downtown on a summer Saturday night is the time to sit if you want to be impressed.
Get to know your dispatchers. You may find that we are hilarious or fun or make great friends. Don’t discount us. We can be fiercely loyal and love going above and beyond.
TBG: Would you repeat your decision to become a 911 dispatcher if you had it to do over again?
KMK: Hell yeah! I love what I do. Where else can I tell cops what to do and not end up in cuffs? I make a difference in someone’s life every single day I put on my headset. Yes there are bad days, sometimes I cry.
It can be from anger, sadness or even frustration. I take comfort in knowing every night when I rest my head on my pillow that I made a difference somewhere, someway, somehow and tomorrow will be another day.
I am the silent hero that most people do not acknowledge or remember. The voice that carries you through until first responders or back up arrive. I am proud of the work that I do, always recognized or not.
TBG: What makes you, you?
KMK: For the record this is the hardest question! I have been fortunate enough to find a profession that I love and excel at. From a young age I was always a people person, I have never met a stranger.
I inherited my father’s charisma and sense of humor. I have been told on many occasions by some of my favorite officers/deputies I missed my calling as a stand-up comedian. I try to remain positive at all times, at work as well as in my personal life. Am I always successful? Not by a long shot. There is always tomorrow for things to turn around.
TBG: Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?
KMK: I would love to thank you for the opportunity to share my insights about a line of work that I have dedicated myself to.