The Thin Gold Line: The life of a dispatcher | News | The Press and Standard
by The Press and Standard | May 6, 2016 5:00 am
Last Updated: June 15, 2016 at 3:05 pm
By GEORGE SALSBERRY
April 10-16 was National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week nationwide — locally it was a time for Colleton County to celebrate its thin gold line.
The law enforcement officers are known as the thin blue line, firefighters-paramedics as the thin red line and correction officers as the thin white line.
Dispatchers are the thin gold line: the thread that is intertwined with the other colors.
The county’s emergency dispatch center currently has 21 dispatchers, most of them spread out between four 12-hour shifts. The 21 include five dispatchers employed by Walterboro, primarily assigned to handle the calls coming into the dispatch center from city residents who need the services of the Walterboro Police and Fire Departments.
The dispatch center, Lt. Angela Stallings explained, handles the emergency calls for seven different departments: the Colleton County Sheriff’s Office, Colleton County Fire-Rescue, Edisto Beach Fire Department, Edisto Beach Police Department and the Cottageville Police Department, in addition to the two Walterboro departments.
Stallings, who has headed the emergency dispatch office since last September, added that other agencies also use their services periodically.
“If Colleton County Animal and Environmental Control gets sent out on a complaint, they dispatch through us so we can keep track of them. They radio in if they need assistance or need to run any information,” Stallings said.
When the Colleton County Probation Office personnel go out to check on those on probation or parole, “they use our dispatch channel. They call in and tell us where they are.”
The South Carolina Department of Natural Resource law enforcement officers working in Colleton County check in with dispatchers to let them know where they are working.
When possible, one dispatcher fields the telephone calls into E-911, while one dispatcher relays that information to law enforcement and a third dispatcher provides information to fire-rescue.
There will be times, Stallings said, when the caller will tell the dispatcher to quit asking questions and send somebody.
They don’t realize that while they are talking to one dispatcher, the two others are passing on the information to the public safety units headed to the incident.
It is one of many things the general public does not know about the operation of the dispatch center, Stallings explained.
Stallings doesn’t have totals on the number of calls that came into E-911 in 2015.
What Stallings has available to demonstrate the amount of work is the number of CAD entries for the sheriff’s office, the call information typed into the computer system by the dispatchers as they communicate with the sheriff’s deputies. All the radio traffic and the E-911 calls are also recorded.
Everything the deputy does, she said, becomes a CAD entry: if they stop to put gas in their cruiser, it becomes a CAD entry.
Last year, she said, the Colleton County Sheriff’s Office alone generated more than 95,000 CAD entries.
Stalling said Colleton County Fire-Rescue would be the next highest generator of emergency calls but, unlike the sheriff’s office, not everything fire-rescue units do goes into a CAD entry.
Stallings began heading the dispatch center last September, but is no stranger to the work.
When she began her law enforcement career, she worked as a dispatcher with the Walterboro Police Department. In 2004, while a member of Colleton County Sheriff’s Office, she spent nine months running the dispatch center.
Although she had previous experience, Stallings said, “there are a lot of things available now that were not available 10 years ago. It has changed a lot and it continues to change.”
For example, she said, some of the larger dispatch centers now have text-to-911 capability. “It is not used much,” Stallings said. “It is better to talk to someone.”
Each dispatcher, she said, has information at their station that gives the dispatcher the information necessary to have the caller begin rendering first aid to a victim while the paramedics are on the way.
The local dispatchers also play a role in deploying the 911 reversal system where residents are contacted and informed of a looming problem. Reverse 911 was used several times during the recent flooding, Stalling said. When the need arises, local dispatchers are required to call the state’s Emergency Preparedness Department and request a 911 reversal.
She said the 911 reversal system automatically calls land lines in the affected area — an expanding problem as more and more people discard their land lines and use cell phones.
Residents can set up their cell phones to receive 911 reversal calls through Code Red, but many are not doing it.
The dispatch center, Stallings said, almost always has a couple of slots open for new employees.
Most of the turn over of employees comes in the first six months on the job. “People don’t really understand what all we do. It takes a special person.
It takes time to become accustomed to seeing a quiet shift quickly turn hectic. “We are pretty busy around here,” she said.
“In the first three to six months, you know if going to make it or not,” Stallings said. It takes time to become accustomed to the fact that “you are in control, but you are not really in control.”
“You don’t want to have any emotions but you have to keep them in check,” Stallings said.
“We can have a 911 call come in and the caller is screaming at us and they have not told us what going on,” she explains. “You have to calm them down, while you stay calm and figure out what is going on.”
The time to give into emotion is after the call is done.
“There are times when those calls stay with you-a couple of shifts, a couple of months, a couple of years. Sometimes forever, there are some calls you live with,” Stallings said.
“This is a very rewarding job,” she offers, “but it is also very stressful.”