Hood River County 9-1-1 Dispatch commander Marita Haddan is blunt about one of the most basic qualifications to be a dispatcher:
“If you can’t multitask this job is not for you.”
She’s not kidding.
At the dispatcher’s station sit three computer mice for controlling five different screens, all of which are blinking with differing information.
One displays a map of the county, another, various radio frequencies with numerous sub menus and trees of signal windows, another has a touch screen for electronic phone dialing and receiving caller information, and two more can be used for looking up information on drivers and suspects.
All must be monitored and used almost simultaneously.
Then there are the binders with warrants, information on known special needs cases, plus missing person and CPR instructions.
Often all of these tools must be used while a panicked person is yelling into the dispatcher’s ear.
That might explain why 9-1-1 dispatchers have to go through so many different levels of training. To even get an application they have to sit through a lengthy orientation about what it takes to be a dispatcher.
“Even then people are like ‘whoa,’ and we don’t see them again, Haddan said.
Anyone who gets past the initial application phase has to come in and take a high school equivalency exam.
Those who get through that come in for a multi-tasking exam.
“We lose a lot of people there,” Haddan said.
Then comes the oral board exam, a background check, a psych evaluation, boot camp training, CPR certification, first aid, LEDS certification for knowing how to use all of the software, six months under supervision with a trainer staring over your shoulder every day, and 18 months of on-the-job probation.
That sets you on your way to basic certification.
The state offers certification at the basic, intermediate and advanced levels.
“Most of the people here have at least intermediate certification,” Haddan said. “A lot have advanced.”
Dispatchers go through continuous training every year to keep up their certification.
“You can’t ever have enough training,” Haddan said.
There is a good reason for it.
Dispatchers talk people through how to treat a sucking chest wound; listen to the final moments of a suicidal person’s life; try to calm a parent who is performing CPR on a child who is blue in the face or receive dozens of panicked calls about the latest car that’s skid off the road into the river.
All of this is done while keeping an even tone as an anonymous voice on the end of the phone saying — “Hello, 9-1-1; what’s your emergency?” — as their own hearts race at 100 miles an hour.
What had been a quiet day or afternoon can become frantic in the millisecond it takes for the flashing red “9-1-1” button to pop up on the call screen and the siren to begin whooping.
It could be a domestic assault or a car crash; or the other end of the phone could be a pocket dial or a kid who pushed 9-1-1 on his parents’ old cellphone. (“Take the batteries out of your phone, even if it’s deactivated it will still call 9-1-1,” said dispatcher Tammy Hughes).
“You just do it; it just happens,” Hughes said of how quickly they can change gears from chatting with a coworker to managing a crisis. “You just get so well-tuned it’s an automatic flip. Once that 9-1-1 phone rings your adrenaline starts pumping.”
Of course not every call ends — or begins for that matter — with high drama.
Haddan knew she was in for a change in Hood River from her previous dispatching job in Salt Lake City, Utah, but didn’t realize how much.
Then in her first days on the job, her fellow dispatcher got a call saying that horses were out in the roads.
The dispatcher and the responding deputy were able to figure out between them who owned the horses and where they had come from.
“The first time I heard them say ‘There is a cow loose on this road, does anyone know who it belongs to?’ I was thinking ‘You’ve got to be kidding me’... I was going ‘Oh my God, what have I gotten into?’” she said.
Then there was the regular drunk who used to call, and when dispatchers asked him his name he would respond “Al.” When pushed for his last name, he would follow up with “Coholic.”
The dispatchers all have their stories to tell, ones that keep them up at night, others that make them chuckle. They spend 10 hours a day, four days a week shut in a room, dealing with some of the worst situations imaginable, sometimes not being able to actively do anything about it – except for what they can relay over the phone.
Often times they see the situation without a full context. They talk a parent through how to help their choking child until the medics arrive. Then the phone is disconnected and they may not ever know how things end up.
“You don’t see the end result,” Haddan said.
They have to learn to leave what they experience behind at their desks, with their headsets and the blinking monitors.
“If you take anything home with you, you’re not going to be able to do (the job),” Haddan said.
Whatever it is that comes in over the phone, whether it is an elderly lady in a care center who wants toilet paper or a house on fire, Haddan has full confidence in her dispatchers to know what to do.
“The people here are probably the best dispatchers that I’ve seen and I’ve visited a whole lot of 9-1-1 centers across the country,” Haddan said. “They know the area; they know the people; when the cops go out on the road, the city or the deputies; they know exactly where it is at.”