First of the first responders

911 dispatchers and call receivers play critical roles in traumatic situations

Photo courtesy of Valley Communications Center

Photo courtesy of Valley Communications Center

Kristin Snow, a 911 dispatcher for more than 20 years, sits at a desk on the far side of the dark call center, wearing a small headset, with a large Starbucks ice water in a cupholder hanging off her desk.

She has an easy smile, but as soon as her phone rings, all of her focus goes to whoever is on the other end.

She communicates with the other first responders who report to 911 call scenes to help them get there as fast as possible.

She also updates first responders with new developments, like if a suspect has fled a scene, or if more information is called in.

Snow wasn’t always a dispatcher. For nine months after she was first hired, she worked as a call receiver.

There is one call she’ll never forget. It was a little girl, age 3, who called because “daddy’s hurting mommy.”

“I think about her sometimes,” Snow said. “She’s 26 now.”

Snow works the day shift as a dispatcher, and a normal day for a 911 dispatcher is always unpredictable. Routine traffic stops aren’t routine because the responding officers never know what they might be dealing with.

“There are a lot of car break-ins and bank robberies,” she said. “But you never know what you’re going to get.”

Even dealing with the hardships of this career, she wouldn’t want to work anywhere else.

“I take a lot of pride in my job,” she said. “I’m good at what I do.”

Vonnie Mayer, deputy director of Valley Communications Center in Kent, said call receivers and dispatchers like Snow are the true “first of the first responders,” and the stress and anxiety can build up at times.

“You could be talking to someone and it’s in their last moments of life,” she said.

The hiring process to work at Valley Communications includes a year of probation after hiring, along with intensive training and tests to make sure potential employees can handle more high-profile calls.

It takes a certain type of character to do this job, Mayer said, and they don’t get the recognition they deserve.

When the dispatcher or call receiver picks up the phone, the person on the other end may just be having the worst day of their life, and that is difficult to deal with every day.

“The only time they’re highlighted is if someone on the news is playing a call that didn’t go right,” Mayer said of her crew. “It’s not the thousands and thousands of calls they do perfectly and make a difference in many people’s lives.”

There is a post-traumatic stress disorder component to this job, Mayer said, as well as critical stress and compassion fatigue.

“There are parts of these conditions that 911 professionals unfortunately share,” she said.

People in this job are still referred to as clerical staff instead of first responders, and Mayer said that on a federal level, that needs to change.

And it looks like that change may be coming.

The Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials-International (APCO International) has suggested revising the Standard Occupational Classification (SOC) for 911 call receivers and dispatchers to be called Public Safety Telecommunicators, to better encompass the true public safety work they do, as well as classify the occupation as “protective,” which is the same classification police officers and firefighters are under.

And these first responders deserve to be recognized as such, Mayer said.

“They are human beings, community members, family members,” she said. “They don’t have 20 minutes to take a call and process it.”

Instead, some people will reach out to other co-workers to cope with the traumatic calls they sometimes take. They also try to recognize when someone needs help but isn’t reaching out, Mayer said.

Rita Salazar, a call receiver for Valley Communications, said she suffers from PTSD symptoms due to some of the calls, but the last truly traumatic call she took was three years ago.

A young girl working a late night at a Game Stop called in a robbery — and had her throat slashed by the suspect before he left.

The girl survived, but hearing the girl’s screams when she realized how badly she was cut is something Salazar can never forget. But taking calls like that is part of the job, she said.

“You have to be able to let it go no matter how bad your day is,” she said, “or you can’t do this job.”

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