Always there when you call

911 dispatch

SOUTH?BEND — It’s Friday evening and a woman believes there is someone outside her home trying to break in. She’s alone and understandably shaken. Her only access to help is at the other end of the phone.

“911, what is your emergency?” Heidi Harvill answers.

The woman’s fear is relayed through the phone with a burst of raw noise.

“Hello? … What’s going on?” Harvill asks, listening closely as she types information onto one screen among five computer monitors at her desk. 

The caller begins to panic. Harvill tries to make sense of the information she’s told, all the while giving her reassurance until help arrives.

“Talk to me, who’s outside? … Stay inside your house and lock the door.”

At a time when a person feels the most scared or vulnerable, Harvill is one of 12 Pacific County 911 dispatchers who handle law enforcement, fire, emergency medical aid and administrative calls from all corners of the county. From breathing difficulties, possible heart troubles and dog bites, to business alarm activations and welfare checks — calls of all kinds make their way to the dispatch center inside the Pacific County Courthouse Public Safety Building in South Bend.

As part of a multi-jurisdictional agency, our county’s 911 dispatchers process calls for the Pacific County Sheriff’s Office; the Long Beach, Raymond, South Bend and Shoalwater Tribal police departments; 12 fire departments; and an ambulance company. They also monitor calls for Washington State Patrol, Pacific County Department of Public Works, Pacific County Jail, and the National Warning System. In August alone, county dispatchers fielded 1,366 calls — 897 were made from cell phones, 419 were from landlines, and there were 50 VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) calls.

First responders

Acting as intermediaries, 911 telecommunicators record the reporting party’s information and deliver details to those responding to the scene. Not only are they trying to ensure the safety of the person who has called, but they’re also trying to keep officers, firefighters and emergency medical service (EMS) personnel safe — all through telephone lines and computer-controlled radio frequencies.

“Telecommunicators, as I like to call ourselves, are the first ‘first responders,’” explains Pacific County Emergency Management Director Stephanie Fritts. 


Loving the job

But whether they prefer to be called telecommunicators, first responders or 911 dispatchers, Harvill and two of her coworkers, Bobbie-Jo Bighill and Charla Clifton, say it’s all just part of their job — and they love it.

Clifton shares why she still enjoys her job after 13 years, “When I get a call that somebody seriously needs help and I feel like I helped get a fire truck or ambulance there and make a difference. I think the most difficult is that I think around here we do make a difference, but we don’t know the end result.”

“When you go home and know you made a difference,” says Bighill, who is in her sixth year. “I hate going home and say if someone was LifeFlighted and I don’t know the outcome. I had a call where a woman walked out of a moving vehicle. She was intubated in the ambulance because she wasn’t breathing on her own. That was years ago, and I still don’t know if she survived because she was transported to a different jurisdiction. Sometimes things aren’t wrapped up in a tidy package with a bow like you’d like.”

Harvill, who has been a dispatcher for 12 years, agrees, “The problem is the outcome — taking calls and not knowing what comes out of it. It can be hard. But we’re just trying to get them the help when they need it.”

With at least two people manning the incoming lines at every hour of the day, last week the three women were working swing shift together, the time of day when the center typically has the highest call volume.

According to Fritts, in larger areas, more telecommunicators would be on shift at one time to level out the ratio of responders assigned to each dispatcher. But in our county, typically one telecommunicator handles all the north county calls, another handles all the south county calls, and often a third will be on shift just to handle incoming calls made on cell phones. Milepost 34 serves as the dividing line between north county and south county.

On Friday, Clifton was receiving law enforcement, fire and EMS calls from north county, while Bighill was receiving the south county’s share and Harvill handled any calls received from cell phones. 

There are 10 incoming 911 lines — eight of them for landline calls and two for cell phones — and other lines reserved for administrative-type calls. 


Answering the six Ws

According to Harvill, when a 911 call comes in, the telecommunicator’s goal is to get the answers to the six Ws: Who? What? When? Where? Why? And are there any weapons? 

She then enters the information into their computer-aided dispatch system, which also allows them access to a database of approximately 200,000 names, addresses and phone numbers. In that database, they can also check to see if the parties involved have any criminal history, protection orders, warrants, concealed weapons permits, even if they’re on life support. Any information that could impede a responder’s safety is relayed directly to them, whether they are a police officer, paramedic or firefighter.

For EMS calls, they also need to find out if the person in need of help is breathing and conscious. If immediate medical aid is needed, dispatchers refer to a large Rolodex-type book with step-by-step instructions they need in order to walk the reporting party through performing CPR, to control bleeding, and other life-saving methods. 

Medical response is prioritized using the Medical Priority Dispatch System: omega (lowest priority), alpha, bravo, Charlie, delta and echo (highest priority). 

When responders are out on a call, their designated dispatcher uses the radio frequency to check in on their status every five minutes. If a responder on duty isn’t on a call, the dispatcher will check his or her status every hour.

In addition to sending out law enforcement, medical aid and fire responders, telecommunicators are also responsible for notifying an animal clinic in the event of a vicious dog, or contacting Willapa Behavioral Health if they receive a call from someone who needs to speak with a counselor. 


Always something different

“Nothing’s ever the same, it’s always different and you always learn something,” Harvill says of her eight-hour shifts.

Bighill says her job is somewhat challenging because chances are fairly good that the dispatchers know the person on the other end of the phone — sometimes it’s even a relative. And thought they may recognize the voice coming from the other end, they must treat it like any other 911 call.

“It’s our job not to panic,” Clifton explains. “Somebody has to keep their wits about them, because whoever is calling has already lost theirs or they wouldn’t be calling us. You have to sort out how urgent it is. I mean, to them it’s urgent; they want someone there this instant. But there’s always a lie in every call, or an exaggeration.”

“You have a job to do,” says Bighill. “That doesn’t mean there isn’t an emotional involvement, but it may not hit you until later. And some things hit different chords with different people — one thing may affect one person emotionally and not another, it just depends on the person.”

“We do the job first and worry later, which is pretty much the same as any other EMS job,” Harvill explains. “You learn to leave work at work, you don’t want to bring it home to your family.”

In addition to passing the civil service test, a psychological test, a background check, a typing test, and a polygraph, and completing the necessary training, the three women say that the most useful qualities in a telecommunicator are: being able to get along with different personalities; patience; and the ability to multitask.

“You have to be able to let things go, you have to have a thick skin, and a good sense of humor — one that others may not understand, a darker humor,” says Bighill

Clifton agrees, “You have to have a sense of humor. You have to be able to be locked in a room with someone for eight hours without wanting to kill them. You have to have a tough shell to not take things personal. And you have to care, which is how we got here in the first place.”

Harvill agrees, “I love people, I love my job and being able to help people — just knowing you’ve been able to help someone else and make a difference. The most difficult thing is not being able to get somewhere soon enough. With a county the size of ours, the time can make a difference. We just have some places too remote; to get an ambulance out to Brooklyn is going to take 25 minutes.”


Give them the information

“The most difficult for me are the callers that won’t give me any information, they say ‘Just get here!’ and hang up,” says Bighill. “We need that information because our main job is to keep our responders safe. We need to know the parties involved and their history. Are there any protection orders in place? Do they have any warrants? Are there kids in the house? Is this problem an ongoing problem? Are there any weapons?”

“And we don’t know where you are on a cell phone. We can get a latitude and longitude, but that can have a great variation from where you really are,” she explains.

Fritts says this is due to the placement of local cell phone towers, which are subject to interference caused by the distance and thick forestation between them. She says the closest they’ve been able to estimate someone’s location is within a 10-block radius, which usually isn’t specific enough for responders to find the scene in an acceptable amount of time.

It’s wise to always know your location — a street name, mile marker or complete address will help dispatchers get assistance where it’s needed. To avoid delay in emergency response, those who use VoIP phone service should also remember to re-register their physical address each time they move residences.

“We cannot ‘ping’ anyone,” Fritts elaborates. “We are relatively limited in a 911 call to determine where that individual is. We can only use triangulation to locate a reporting party.”

They also advise that if you call 911, don’t hang up. 

“Let it ring,” Clifton urges. “It may ring lots on your end, but it may have only rung twice on my end.”


Figuring out hang-ups

A good portion of telecommunicators’ time is spent calling back 911 hang-ups. In the event of a misdial, simply stay on the line and say it was a misdial when a dispatcher takes your call. (Deactivated cell phones will still call 911, so don’t let children play with your old cell phone.)

Bighill, Clifton and Harvill also wish to remind the public to only call 911 when there’s an actual emergency.

“A lot of people call for things you’d never imagine calling 911 for,” Harvill sighs.

“We have people call us to look up a phone number for them,” Bighill chuckles. “One time a man called the sheriff’s office and said he needed the number for a nice hotel and restaurant because he forgot his anniversary.”

“Don’t call 911 if your lights are out,” adds Clifton. “Don’t call us if you’re having a water issue. And I wish people knew the non-emergency numbers, because every time the 911 line rings, you assume it’s an emergency. And they say, ‘Oh it’s not really an emergency, but I didn’t know the number to call.’ And they’re tying up an emergency line. Do not touch the seals on the beach, do not take them to your hotel room, and do not call 911 about them.”

The 24-hour non-emergency number is 642-9397 in north Pacific County and 875-9397 in South Pacific County. 

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