Tracy Seybold

I am a police dispatcher, and I work the graveyard shift in a small county in southern Colorado. Once the sun goes down, I am the only contact point for three law enforcement agencies, three fire departments, two ambulance garages, the department of social services, the department of mental health, the water, gas and sewer departments and the county road and bridge crews. I man eight phone lines, answer 911 calls, and keep track of six to ten law enforcement officers simultaneously.

Because I work for such a small county, there are times when nothing much is going on, but there are also periods of utter chaos, when multi-tasking is not just a word but an art form. In training, I was told only six percent of the population have the multi-tasking skills required to be a police dispatcher, and given the huge attrition rate for this profession, I believe it. Less than one in four of the people we hire make it through the training program, but it’s almost impossible to predict which ones. Until you are thrown into the chaos, I don’t think anyone knows if they have what it takes.

Let’s say 911 rings, and the caller reports that there has been a serious accident on the interstate. While keeping the caller on the line, and asking him questions about injuries and trying to gather all the pertinent information, I must also dispatch an ambulance and perhaps a rescue unit. I also have to advise State Patrol’s dispatch so they can send a trooper. Meanwhile, probably twenty other people have seen the accident and are also calling in to report it. I have to answer every one of those calls, and get details from all of them, because they may be calling in to report a different accident (which is very possible on one of our snowy Colorado days) or something else entirely. I now have every phone lit up, and four or five different people trying to reach me by radio. Somehow I must juggle all of this, while perhaps also running the license plates and names of all the people involved through NCIC/CCIC (National Crime Information Center/Colorado Crime Information Center) to determine if they are wanted, if the vehicles are stolen or if they have valid licenses. It can become overwhelming, to say the least.

On my desk, I have the 911 system, which includes a phone and a monitor, a computer which is always logged in to NCIC/CCIC, a radio console with 11 channels, another computer where I manually type in every phone call and every bit of radio traffic with the exact time it occurred, and a phone with eight lines. I have at least 20 binders filled with information-maps, security codes for gates and alarms, contact people for various businesses, city and county government officials, bee keepers, taxidermists, animal rescue, cattle owners, etc.-and I need to know where everything is and find it in a matter of seconds. I probably have at least 200 phone numbers memorized. The cops, firemen and paramedics I work with expect me to have the answer to every question they ask me, and they want the answer now.

As a police dispatcher, I get to live vicariously. Nearly every day brings some new situation I’ve never dealt with before. My job can be terrifying and stressful but is always challenging and rewarding. I have to be the calm, comforting voice that sends help when someone’s life is falling apart. That’s not always easy, but I can’t imagine doing anything else.

***

Tracy Seybold has been a police dispatcher for five years. To prove her multi-tasking skills, she is also the award-winning author of nine historical romances under the pen name Diana Bold, is an editor for Cobblestone Press and has three teen-aged boys. Her first book, THE MAIL ORDER BRIDE was nominated for both the 2006 CAPA Award for Best Historical Romance and Ecataromance’s Best First Book of 2006. You can visit her website at http://www.dianabold.com/ or email her at Diana@dianabold.com if you have any questions about police dispatching or small town sheriff’s departments.     

  1. mnboater
    mnboater says:

    Thanks for sharing and giving the real scoop. When you get off work, the last thing you probably want to do is answer another phone call.

  2. Diana Bold
    Diana Bold says:

    My internet service is still horrible tonight, every time the page loads, I lose the signal. But I will be checking back tomorrow, and if anyone has any more questions I didn’t answer, you can always reach me at diana@dianabold.com. Have a great night everyone!

  3. Diana Bold
    Diana Bold says:

    Hello Donnell! Hello Melanie! I’ve been asked before how I keep my calm during a crisis, and I really can’t explain it, I just do. 🙂 I kind of go on autopilot, but afterwards, on the drive home, that’s when I lose it. LOL It’s just a matter of knowing you have to get the job done, and not really having the time to think about it, or how is at stake until it’s all over with. At the time of the crisis, I really just take one second at a time. That’s not a very good answer, but I can’t think of any other way to describe it.

  4. DonnellB
    DonnellB says:

    Hi. Lt. Swords, nice to meet you 😉 Coming from a police lieutenant, that’s high praise of a dispatcher, and I can tell you Tracy takes her job very seriously.

  5. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    Melanie – See what wonderful surprises we come up with here on The Graveyard Shift.

    I think Tracy should come back later for part two. There’s so much to learn about dispatching.

  6. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    Dave- I saw the same thing. She was very, very good. A good dispatcher is worth their weight in gold. On the other hand, a bad one could easily cause someone to get hurt.

    By the way, Tracy, D. Swords is retired police lieutenant.

  7. D. Swords
    D. Swords says:

    Hi, Donnell. You asked Tracy how she keeps a cool head in a crisis, and of course only she can answer that, but it reminded of something I saw on TV. Remember the big shoot out in LA a few years back in which the two bank robbers were covered in body armor and shot it out with the police?
    I saw a program that featured, among others, the dispatcher that handled most of that.

    She … was … awesome!

    You know she was under tremendous stress, and yet she clicked off her dispatching with a remarkable staccato fashion without hesitating or saying “uh” or faltering in anyway. It was really something to hear.

  8. melanie atkins
    melanie atkins says:

    Awesome, Tracy! I know you from Cobblestone Press and your book The Black Orchid. Loved it. I’m in awe…I had no idea you are a police dispatcher. Very, very cool. I really admire the job you do. Like someone else mentioned, I also visited our local 911 call center during the Citizen’s Police Academy. Ours is larger than yours but not huge, with four separate precincts. I was amazed at the way the operators coordinated everything.

  9. DonnellB
    DonnellB says:

    Hi, Tracy, your article is great. Thanks for sharing your expertise with us. Can you talk about what goes through your head during a crisis? I would guess that the cops you work with are like family, and I’m particularly interested in, along with this fantastic ability to multi-task, how do you keep your cool when you’re under pressure, or what’s more, when you’re worried.
    Thank you!

  10. bsack
    bsack says:

    Thanks so much for taking time from what must be a very busy schedule to be with us, Tracy. Like everyone else, I’m in awe of what you do. Just wondering where you were hiding your 2-3 other heads and dozen other arms in that nice photo of you. 🙂

  11. Diana Bold
    Diana Bold says:

    I’m going to run out and go to dinner with my DH, but I’ll be checking back later if anyone else has any questions. Thanks again, Lee, for giving me this opportunity!

  12. Diana Bold
    Diana Bold says:

    Someone else had a comment about how scary it is as a dispatcher to be on the other side of the radio when the officers are out on a call. This is SO true!!! The officers I work with are like family to me and it would kill me if something happened to one of them. Those few moments of silence can be an eternity. I think one of the reasons I’m a good dispatcher is the fact that I’m able to visualize what’s happening on the other side of the radio, but my imagination also tends to run away with me. When the officer comes back on the radio to tell me he’s code 4, I always breathe a sigh of relief.

  13. Diana Bold
    Diana Bold says:

    D Swords had an interesting comment about how much things have changed. My first supervisor, who retired this spring had been working for my agency since the mid 60’s. He was there WAY before 911 was implemented, and used to tell us stories of how things were done back in the day. When he first started, there was a red light outside the police department door, and when he got a call, he would turn it on. When a patrolling officer saw it, he knew there was an emergency and would pull in to see what it was!! LOL

  14. Diana Bold
    Diana Bold says:

    The graveyard shift!!! I love the graveyard shift and choose to work it even though I have enough senority to pick and choose my schedule now. I’m a night owl by nature, and besides, all the good stuff happens on the graveyard shift. LOL Where I work, the day shift is much more clerical. All the calls for both the city and the county come into the comm center and the daytime dispatchers are constantly taking messages and trying to track people down. Also, most of the administrative stuff, entering warrants, etc. is done by the day shift. At night, there aren’t as many people milling around and most of the calls that come in are actually emergencies of one sort or another.

  15. Diana Bold
    Diana Bold says:

    Someone asked a question about training… I would say the level of training varies from place to place. Because I work for such a small agency, we do not have the manpower to take someone off the radio to do classroom training, so all my training was on the job. But I know bigger comm centers can have up to three or four months of classroom training before the dispatchers even go near a radio. I spent three months working with someone beside me before I was turned loose by myself, but I wouldn’t say I felt comfortable about it for over a year. There are just so many situations that arise that you’ve never dealt with before, and no way to train someone to deal with every single eventuality. In the end, a good dispatcher just has to trust their gut.

  16. Diana Bold
    Diana Bold says:

    911 technology has advanced in since 2000, but not where I work. LOL We are still working with a rather primitive phase 1 system. We don’t have the capability to receive 911 cell phone calls through the 911 system, though most places do. Instead, a 911 call comes through our regular phone lines, which do have caller ID, but we have no idea who the phone belongs to, or where they are calling from. Since so many people use cell phones as their primary lines now, this can be very frustrating. We are hoping to upgrade soon, but right now the funds just aren’t there.

  17. Diana Bold
    Diana Bold says:

    When I receive a 911 call from a payphone, the 911 screen displays the location of the payphone, and the fact that it is a payphone. Then I just handle it like any other call. Usually, when I get a call from a payphone, it’s kids who think it will be funny to dial 911 and then run away. Usually by the time the officers get there, there is no one around. It usually would only take two or three minutes for an officer to arrive, but that’s assuming they aren’t on another call. 911 calls are always given priority though, so someone would try to break away from the other call to handle it, depending on the severity of the first call. Also, the town is very small, so everything is in close proximity. I would imagine it would take a bit longer in a big city. Does that answer your questions, whereswill??

  18. Diana Bold
    Diana Bold says:

    Sorry I’m so late getting here! When I got off, my post wasn’t up yet, and we are having a bad storm here in Colorado and my internet was down all morning, so I got frustrated and decided to take a nap…and slept way too long! Anyway, I’ll try to answer all your questions now. 🙂

  19. carlalua
    carlalua says:

    Lee– Great topic, esp for me as I’m doing something right now about disptachers! Tracy, when you get up again, let me add my thanks to the blog. You guys perform amazing feats of juggling that the rest of us can only dream about. I’m so impressed. Someone asked about pay phone calls. I’d like to ask about cell phone calls. I’ve done some research already but would love to know your department’s status vis-a-vis the Phase One, Phase Two abilities. Do most small setups like yours have Phase 2 now? Thanks in advance for the answer…

  20. SweetieZ
    SweetieZ says:

    Well, I don’t have a lap top to take to the ba … library. Guess I will finish chores, take a nap, and call her a night owl. Check back later.

    She sounds responsible, and maybe agreed to today, after a night off and sleep, then got called in.

    Let us know you are ok Tracy. The world needs you and many more like you.

  21. ramona
    ramona says:

    Wow, Tracy, what an impressive description of your job. And you manage to write after that kind of pressure? I think I’d spend my free time winding down at the local ba…library.

  22. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    Hi guys. I’m not sure where Tracy is at the moment. I’m assuming she worked last night and decided to get some sleep before stopping in. I know I would have.

  23. Robin
    Robin says:

    Wow Tracy! I am so amazed at what all your job entails! I am in awe that you do all of that and write such wonderful books as well – thanks for such an interesting blog!

  24. D. Swords
    D. Swords says:

    Hi, Tracy.

    I’m a retired policeman who started his career as a police cadet, which involved a lot of filling in for dispatchers. The year I started (’73) was the department’s first year of having 911, which of course had no way to trace calls. The closest thing to a computer in the whole building was a teletype. License plate registrations were read out of a big book the state sent to each department. Dispatching logs were kept in long hand on a big sheet of paper.

    Enough nostalgia. My point is things have certainly changed.

    By the time I was a shift commander, if the computers went down, dispatchers had to revert back to the hand-written system and would go absolutley crazy!

    But, under either system, dispatchers have a very tough job. It is nerve-wracking to say the least. When an officer arrives on a hot call, the dispatcher feels totally helpless and on edge, waiting to hear from the street. Then when they officers do get back on the radio, the dispatcher is often the brunt of the officer’s frustration.

    I always had great respect for the job you do.

  25. Elena
    Elena says:

    Thank you Tracy,
    What a wonderful read about a group of dedicated and usually invisible people. Wish you’d come back and tell us more 🙂

  26. SweetieZ
    SweetieZ says:

    Holy smokes ! I am in awe. You may need to borrow that pink octopus from Janet (4/8/8)

    I have a multitasking job as well and thought I was tough. (service writer) You would probably to this with one hand behind your back.

    How long is the training for this ? Did you pick grave yard shift ? How many are there during the day ? My head is still spinning. You sound like a caring person and really good at what you do.

  27. wbereswill
    wbereswill says:

    Thanks for the info, Tracy. I have a couple of questions, if you don’t mind.

    How does a call from a payphone come up on your system?

    Also, has the 911 system advanced in technology since, say the year 2001?

    My novel is set in early 2002 and there is a key 911 call from a payphone. If you received a call from a child in distress, how quickly would you expect to have an officer at the scene. I know that would vary by size, etc, but in general?

    Thanks for your time.

  28. Terry
    Terry says:

    We toured the communications center as part of the Civilian Police Academy class, and the calm way all the operators handle their myriad calls is amazing. It’s much larger than the situation you describe, but although they have numerous people taking the calls, there’s still only one official “Dispatcher”.

    (And I thought your name was familiar–I’ve got short stories with Wild Rose Press, too.)