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.