Saturday, June 19, 2010

Hooked by Dispatcher Anndora

January 2, 1991 is a day I will always remember. It was my first day at SRPD as a Records Clerk - I had survived a hiring process that started with 80-100 applicants. The process took over a year to complete (from application to interview to background investigation). My first 3 days were spent in "orientation" with another newbie, Officer Wanda Spaletta (she's now a sergeant with us!). We met various people in the department and learned their responsibilities. I remember being wide-eyed, fearful of what was coming my way, excited, ready for a challenge and oblivious to how this job would change me.

My life prior to SRPD was spent in retail. I had held multiple positions with a now defunct department store chain. My responsibilities ranged from sales to Customer Service Supervisor to Bridal Consultant. I guess I interviewed fairly well because they hired me and I knew nothing about law enforcement! All during the orientation and training process, I was told to make sure I kept my friends outside of the department because it's healthy to not eat, sleep and breathe police work. [Okay, easier said than done, when you find yourself working when others are sleeping and missing parties, family gathering and holidays.] Yes, they did warn me of shift work and the chance I'd have to cancel plans based on the needs of the Department and City. Sometimes, I thought they were trying to scare me off.

I vividly remember during the orientation process, wonder what I had gotten myself into. Working in law enforcement meant I had to learn the jargon, the codes (and there are lots of them!), a new city and see people not necessarily in the best light. Remember, I came from a world where "the customer is always right" even if they weren't, to a world where folks didn't necessarily tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. My two main trainers, while I was in Records, were great. They took this kid under their arm and patiently trained me on how to take calls, cut to the chase and data enter the copious amounts of reports into the records keeping system. They challenged me, helped me deal with difficult people (and some of them were co-workers!) and helped me grow and challenge myself. I fell in love with the job. It was something or someplace where you never knew how a hot call would end, let alone the day!

I remember hearing my first police chase on the radio, during training and not understanding what was being said, therefore not understanding the gravity of the situation. I just knew by looking at my co-workers, this was something major. The situation, to our relief, would end with no officers getting hurt and the bad guys in custody. Later in my career, I was given the nick name of "S--t Magnet" because it was guaranteed if I was working with a certain Sergeant or if I said a certain word, the shift would be rocking and rolling. Looking back at it now, maybe the foundation for that nick name was established during my first year at the PD - because we had 7 homicides (I was told it was an anomaly) and everyone worked long, long days.

All I knew was, I was hooked!

During December 1992, I tested for and was promoted to Communications Dispatcher. After I completed the training process, I was challenged and tested by the field units. Some of it was in good nature, some of it was that they wanted to make sure I "had their back" when the going got tough. There are always calls that you will always remember. It's usually the "firsts." Granted, during training I handled a variety of hot calls and in progress calls, but there's the security of knowing your trainer is there, listening and guiding you through the toughest situations. The first real "oh shit" call I had I still remember vividly - it was within my first week out of training. My supervisor let my partner leave a few minutes early because she had an appointment. The supervisor told me I'd be fine and she'd be right there if something happened. I remember watching, from a security camera, the tail lights of my partner's car drive out of the back parking lot. I also remember the security camera switching to another view - allowing me to see my supervisor leave the Communications Center and walk into the main part of the department. There are two security coded doors that separate the Comm Center and the main office.

As fate would have it, my friend Murphy would wave his magic wand. As I watched that 2nd security door close, the 911 phone bank lit up! I was taking non-stop 911 calls of shots fired with a man running down the street. It was up to me and only me to get the information from the callers and the units dispatched on the radio while keeping myself and everyone else calm. I remember a "feeling" coming over me an instant before I hit the transmit button. I remember my voice was calm sounding but I was having the hardest time typing because my hands were shaking. I remember my supervisor trying to get back in, hearing her fumble the codes for the door. I remember one of my trainers from Records helping me answer the copious 911 calls that were still coming in. I remember her calling in and saying I had to pick up this certain 911 line because it was the victim. AACK! I took a deep breath and picked up the call. Meanwhile, my supervisor finally makes it in and asks what she needs to do, I gesture for her to pick up the phone calls!

While talking to the victim I learned a lot of new information, including the suspect's name and address, and kept the officers updated to what was going on. The victim stayed on the phone with me until I got officers to her. She acted as my eyes, reporting and relaying information and I was her safety line. While the 911s stopped ringing, we were fielding request for information from officers, detectives and everyone else from the radio and other phone lines. The first scene was controlled and now the officers were forming their plans and looking for the suspect. We were searching background information on the suspect, including cars, weapons and prior criminal history.

One of the officers got on the radio and said, "I know you are busy but are you clear for Channel 2?" Channel 2 was an auxiliary channel where radio traffic was less formal. I said I was. He said, "You did an awesome job, you did it exactly like you were supposed to! Fantastic!" I was stunned, that officer was the one who would test me, the one that sometimes made me feel like I had failed because I didn't have the information he, and only he seemed to want. I was floating! I guess that's when I knew I had made it as a Dispatcher! It wasn't until years later, I had the guts to reveal to him how, he was the one who always made me nervous and unsure, until that major impact moment on Channel 2. It was his turn to be stunned. I remember him saying, something like, "Really? I always knew you'd be a good dispatcher!" Remembering the Channel 2 interaction still makes me "warm and fuzzy" :) . It's funny how I can remember the events of this call vividly but probably can't tell you too much about the calls I took just yesterday.

I've mentioned before, this job is not for everyone. I know between all my "extra" duties in the Department, I've seen, smelled, touched and heard lots of things I can't share with my family or friends outside of the "business." Not because they don't want to know, but because they most likely won't understand or it's simply too frightening for them to hear the whole truth. This job does change you. Most of the time you don't deal with best of society has to offer. You learn to quickly size up situations and to read people. You develop a sixth sense, in order to survive. You learn to follow your gut instincts and to realize the hairs on the back of your neck are standing up for a reason! As a dispatcher, I've learned to listen to what's going on around me and what's not being said. Whether its on or off duty, at work or in a social situation, I've learned to listen conversations around me. I guess it's kind of like eavesdropping but for a dispatcher it's an awareness and a skill that can't be necessarily turned off.

Almost two decades later, you'd think I'd have seen, heard or done it all...nope, not in this field. You never know what the next 911 call will bring. My crystal ball is officially broken and I'm not a mind reader. But, I'm still hooked. I love what I do, where I do it and the people I do it with!