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Dispatchers backbone of safety forces
Dispatchers backbone of safety forces
By SUE REID
As the point of first contact, dispatchers are considered the lifeline of safety professionals in the field.
“Without dispatchers, most of what happens in public safety wouldn’t happen,” Solon Police Chief Chris-topher P. Viland said. “The dispatcher’s role in the safety of the pubic and first responders can never be overstated.”
Whether it’s providing life-saving or safety information to the caller on the line or developing information, there really is no typical day at Solon’s dispatch center, lead dispatcher Mary Beth Terwilliger said.
“You have to be ready for anything at any time,” said Mrs. Terwilliger, a dispatcher for 17 years and head dispatcher for three years.
Solon’s dispatchers, which take emergency and non-emergency calls, answer anywhere from 2,500 to 3,000 phone calls in a month, which don’t include 911 calls that amount to about 500 monthly. There are 14 dispatchers at the department, with 10 full time and four part time.
“They are at the heart of everything,” police Lt. Bruce Felton said. “Without them, we don’t have any way of knowing what is going on, how to get to calls or what we might find when we get there. They are really at the heart of all our information.”
Officer safety, as well as safety of the residents, is the top concern of dispatchers, Mrs. Terwilliger said. Any pertinent information is relayed to officers, including whether the subject is wanted or has a criminal history.
“Officers rely on dispatchers for virtually every piece of information they receive on scene,” Chief Viland said. That includes vehicle, personal, warrant and stolen property information, as well as telephone contacts.
In speaking with residents to develop information, dispatchers often deal with emotional issues, Mrs. Terwilliger said. Beyond commanding the call to get information and relay it to the field, dispatchers know how long to stay on the phone with the caller.
“It’s tough,” she said. “You have to really take control of the call without coming across as rude. It’s a tightrope. If you tell someone to calm down, they may do the exact opposite.”
Dispatchers are responsible for knowing where the officers are at all times, Chief Viland said. “It is an incredibly tough job to do when your only tools are a phone, a radio and your training and experience.”
Solon dispatchers receive intense training, beginning with 16 weeks of in-service training upon being hired, similar to the department’s police officers. It’s well-defined and task-driven training, Chief Viland said.
In addition, dispatchers have the opportunity for continuing education through outside classes and/or internal, mandatory training sessions. Training includes equipment, procedures, handling bomb threats, emergency medical dispatching and in-progress calls.
Solon’s dispatchers receive in-house training through a program at the fire department, where they are recertified every two years to provide CPR and emergency medical dispatching over the phone.
Despite all of the training, Mrs. Terwilliger noted that dispatchers can’t train for everything. “You learn something new every day in this profession, and there are often situations where you have to go with your instincts.”
Solon’s dispatch center, considered one of the larger ones in the area, serves the Solon police and fire departments, as well as Glenwillow’s fire and emergency medical service. Dispatchers also serve in a task force role with the Southeast Area Law Enforcement organization.
“We serve at least 20 communities,” Mrs. Terwilliger said. “If they have a hazmat incident, they call us.”
Changes in technology have forced dispatchers to learn and adapt, she said. “It is no longer just a telephone and button to push. Technology and the city have grown.”
It never ceases to amaze him, Chief Viland said, what dispatchers can do from behind a microphone. “I’ve heard dispatchers provide CPR instructions, which helped save someone’s life,” he said. “A good dispatcher can run a police pursuit or a crime-in-progress call and keep all the first responders safe and aware of what’s going on. It is truly a profession and one deserving of respect.”
“Nobody ever grows up saying, ‘I want to be a dispatcher,’” Mrs. Terwilliger said, adding it was her strong commitment to the community growing up in Solon that led her to the field. “The best part of the job is being able to make a difference and to be there to get the help to people who need it. Without us, there’s a big gap in communication.”
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