Daylight filters through tinted windows into the dimly lit emergency dispatch center, its somber ambience buoyed by the colorful glow of computer monitors and strings of Christmas tree lights.
Idle chatter among dispatchers belies their pensive mien.
It’s early afternoon at the Charlottesville area’s Emergency Communications Center, which currently is undergoing a staffing crisis, and the phones are not busy. Dispatchers insist it’s not quiet. Quiet is not a word they use. Call it anything you want — call it a kumquat, for crying out loud — just don’t call it quiet.
“Once you say that word, the dispatch gods go ‘quiet? Well, we can change that’ and then everything breaks loose,” dispatcher Taylor Ashley says matter of factly as he monitors the computer terminal and radio that dispatches Charlottesville police. “And once something starts happening, everything starts happening.”
Whenever there’s a call for help, the ECC answers it. The dispatchers tell Charlottesville and Albemarle County fire and rescue crews where to go, how to get there and what to do when they arrive.
Funded by the city, county and the University of Virginia, with finances administered by the county government, the center’s crews also send those three entities’ police departments on calls.
Sometimes it’s a simple call: A woman reports two suspicious men wearing jeans and T-shirts, sitting at the bus stop and smoking cigarettes. Sometimes it’s more complicated: A structure fire, a car crash or a shooting.
“You never know what’s going to happen when that phone rings,” says Kate Webster, manning one of three posts that communicate with fire and rescue personnel.
“Just answering the phone has its own stress. It could be something simple like a disabled vehicle. It could be a structure fire. It could be someone screaming in panic or just wanting to ask a question,” she says. “Whatever it is, whatever the problem, you are now a part of it.”
Dispatchers are in the middle of everything. They are the link between the public and first responders. They relay information, offer advice and check in after responders arrive.
They tell callers how to give first aid or CPR before the crews show up. They’re the first to know and the first to react.
The job is stressful. Numerous studies conducted across the United States and Canada show dispatchers are subject to similar stress levels experienced by police and fire and rescue crews.
“[Dispatchers] rely on their interrogative skills to assess an incident, secure the emergency scene and send appropriate help, all within minutes of answering a call,” Michelle Lilly, a researcher with Northern Illinois University, wrote in a 2012 study. “Crucial to success is the ability to remain calm and suppress emotional reactions.”
Lilly’s study showed the same incidents that may cause post-traumatic stress disorder in police, fire and emergency medical crews may have the same impact on dispatchers.
The worst calls are injury or death of a child, suicidal callers, shootings involving officers and calls involving unexpected adult deaths, the study showed.
“Results showed that calls frequently encountered by [dispatchers] can produce feelings of intense fear, helplessness, or horror,” Lilly wrote.
Dispatching is not a job for everyone, said officials with Kings III, a private emergency communications company.
“Being an emergency operator requires certain skills, both intuitive and interpersonal. Workers must make life-or-death judgments, often based on incomplete or wrong information,” company officials said.
Dispatchers say they try not to carry work around with them, but it can be difficult.
“A lot of times you’re still mentally processing a call even as you walk through the door when you get home,” Ashley said. “We’re the beginning and the middle of a call, but we don’t always get to the end of it and we don’t get to see what happened, to get closure. Those calls can get to you.”
The intensity of the job leads to staff turnover, which often results in mandatory overtime, which creates more stress and leads to more turnover. That’s created a nationwide shortage of dispatchers, from Oakland, Michigan, and Boulder, Colorado, to Outagamie County, Wisconsin, and here in Charlottesville.
ECC Director Barry Neulen said the communications center is about a dozen dispatchers short of a full staff and that dispatchers currently split time between answering 911 calls and training new hires, a period that can take as long as a year.
Trainees learn to answer phones, determine which agency should answer the call, contact the agency according to its individual policies on emergency calls and dispatch the call.
With three police departments and fire and emergency medical services, dispatchers must learn the rules of several agencies before their probationary employment period is over.
For more than a year, ECC dispatchers have worked 12-hour shifts and mandatory overtime, struggling to train new colleagues while finding time to keep up on their own training to meet professional standards.
Some new hires leave before they’re done training, sometimes because of the stress of dealing with emergencies.
Kiersten Trader is currently training to be a dispatcher.
“I had a caller who had just been in a car crash and she was upset and crying and screaming,” Trader said. “I was trying to calm her down and convince her everything was going to be all right even though I’ve never been in an accident and didn’t really know what she was going through. You just have to rely on training and common sense.”
The center recently went on an advertising blitz to recruit dispatchers and now has eight hires ready to go through training and three who previously worked at the center and have returned following increases in salaries.
Those hires must now go through the lengthy training process while other dispatchers work overtime to fill the slots of those who are doing the training.
“A lot of people don’t make it. They have no idea what they’re getting in to or how they’re going to react,” said Jan Farruggio, a veteran dispatcher and trainer. “It’s not for everyone.”
At a Jan. 8 meeting, an emergency funding contract was approved by the ECC management board to hire an outside consultant to help train the new hires. The board includes the city, county and UVa police chief and fire and rescue chiefs and other representatives from the city, county and university.
The contracting process took longer than board members anticipated and, at a hastily called special meeting Feb. 1, the board voted to scrap the emergency funding and send the contract through the county bidding process, which could take 60 to 90 days.
Board members agree there is a staffing crisis at the center, but they said it’s important to make sure contracts are properly put out for bid, reviewed and awarded.
Meanwhile, dispatchers say they will keep working and hoping the new hires make it onto the dispatch center floor.
“If you don’t like doing this, I don’t think you could do it for long,” said Rick Johnson, a 21-year veteran of the dispatch center. “There are days you work 16 hours and you can’t believe how stressful it is. There are other days when it’s the opposite. Every day has a certain level of stress and some days it’s just out of this world.”
For trainee Trader, it seems like the job she’s long wanted, even when she had to talk someone through providing CPR.
“Some days you drive home and you think, ‘wow, that really happened, and I was a part of it.’ That’s a good feeling,” she said. “Sure, we’re not seeing what’s going on out there, but we’re in the middle of it. We’re all ears.”