The Dispatcher’s World: A Look Into The Other End Of A 911 Call

MAYVILLE – While many applaud those first responders who gallantly arrive at an emergency, the same cannot be said about those highly trained individuals behind the scenes, the ones who not only make first contact with a victim, but who often tangle with moments of life and death right over the phone.

The emergency dispatchers of the Chautauqua County Sheriff’s Office are, in many ways, the “unsung heroes” of first responders.

Operating out of a darkened room, illuminated only by lamps and a vast array of computer screens, these men and women occupy a sort of nerve center at the department, one in which every 911 call – countywide – is directed.

“The job can be stressful,” said Corey Swanson, emergency dispatcher. “There could be times where you have a despondent person threatening suicide, and at the same time, a house fire that brings in 10 to 15 fire departments. You get constant radio chatter, phones ringing off the hook … then you might get the old lady who locked her keys in the car.”

Indeed, the diversity of 911 calls is perhaps indicative of the growing area of responsibility assigned to county dispatch. which now includes the Jamestown, Ellicott, Lakewood-Busti, Westfield and Carroll police departments as well as the local New York State Police.

In addition, the Sheriff’s Office dispatches more than 40 local fire departments.

Only land line calls from Dunkirk and Fredonia are handled by separate dispatch centers.

“You never know when something bad is going to happen,” Swanson said. “We could be sitting here twiddling our thumbs, and within 30 seconds, we get almost more than we can handle.”

The dispatch center is split into two sections, with one primarily serving as a call center and the other composed of four main consoles, or computer stations, that are designated a set of agencies to dispatch. When a 911 call comes in, a call taker records the victim’s information and sends it to the console responsible for the nearest unit.

These consoles, made up of multiple computer screens seemingly stacked up on top of one another, display a wide variety of information to the dispatcher, from what units are available to what calls are currently ongoing.

“We also have a (computer-aided dispatch) map,” Swanson said. “The map will show the street numbers, house numbers and where all the fire hydrants are located (near the victim).”

Courtesy of GPS signals, dispatchers can also identify the longitude and latitude of victims using cell phones in a matter of milliseconds.

“Often times, victims will be on a thruway and not know where they are,” Swanson said. “In these instances, these (map) tools can be very useful.”

In other instances, dispatchers are forced to aid victims in critical situations over the phone, from heart attacks and injuries to choking and child birth. For these cases, dispatchers refer to a binder full of instructional cards, each one listing a set of steps and guidelines for a wide variety of emergency scenarios.

“Everybody who takes a call is able to talk anybody through CPR through reading these cards,” Swanson said. “We don’t make anything up we just read.”

Swanson added, however, that the cards are still a supplement, and that all dispatchers are certified through an emergency medical dispatcher course. They also must complete a 40-hour telecommuting course.

Dispatchers are composed of both full-time and part-time employees, with most working 10-hour shifts, four days a week. At a minimum, four dispatchers can be working at a time, with a patrol sergeant – who oversees all dispatch operations – always present.

According to Joseph Gerace, Chautauqua County sheriff, the dispatchers at the department are not only highly trained, but are taking advantage of the available technology to quicken response times and ultimately save lives.