Wanted: cool characters

Dispatchers learn to handle pressure

Staff WriterApril 18, 2006 

Dispatcher trainee Jennifer Downs, left, gets help from Amanda Davis at the Raleigh-Wake Emergency Communications Center. Six new dispatchers are nearing the end of an intense 12-week course in answering 911 calls.

STAFF PHOTO BY COREY LOWENSTEIN

  • The Raleigh-Wake Emergency Communications Center will offer 12-week training sessions for new hires in June and October. For more information about the center or the hiring process for dispatchers, call Director Barry Furey at 890-3530 or the City of Raleigh Personnel Department at 890-3315.

RALEIGH -- The six new emergency dispatchers have spent weeks mastering Wake County geography, watching police respond to calls and memorizing dozens of codes used to describe emergencies and accidents.

Now comes the toughest part: learning to ignore their adrenal glands, stay calm under pressure and pose the right questions to distressed callers who have dialed 911.

"We have training that we need to have empathy, not sympathy," said Nadine Myers, who will graduate from Raleigh-Wake Emergency Communications Center's dispatcher training program in a few weeks. "We can't just break down and lose it."

Dealing with pressure is something Raleigh administrators hope these students will master so they can bolster a depleted staff. The Raleigh-Wake dispatch center, which handled more than 801,000 calls last year, should have 78 workers but is about 20 short of that, said Barry Furey, director of the center. The turnover rate last year was 18 percent.

Finding and keeping employees is a nationwide problem for dispatch centers, according to the Association of Public-Safety Communication Officials. The main reason is the nature of the job: long shifts staring at computer screens, making split-second decisions while listening to emotional callers.

"When people call 911, they're not having a nice day," Furey said.

On a recent weekday, Wake's six trainees sat next to veteran dispatchers inside the cool and dark communications center in Raleigh's city hall. It was a chance to get some hands-on experience before they graduate from the 12-week academy.

After clearing up a few morning accidents, Myers took a call from a crying teenage girl who couldn't bring herself to say why she had called 911.

Veteran dispatcher Celia McCoy, who sat nearby, motioned to Myers and broke into the call. Her voice was strong and sympathetic, like a mother coaxing a hysterical child.

"Calm down and talk to me. What's wrong?" McCoy cooed.

The girl was still crying, unable to speak.

"I'm here to help you, so I need you to tell me exactly the problem," McCoy said.

Finally, after a few more tries, the girl explained that she was upset by her father, who she said might become abusive. McCoy persuaded the girl to let a police officer stop by and told her to call back if she needed assistance.

"No, you did fine calling us," McCoy reassured her. "We're here to help."

Those who work in emergency call centers are closely scrutinized by their employers and the public. Calls are taped and reviewed by consultants who evaluate the quality of their responses. Phone calls that involve sick or injured people are reviewed by an outside physician, and often in high-profile cases the tapes are broadcast on TV or Web sites.

Furey said the center used to seek dispatchers who had been firefighters, police officers or paramedics. Now, he said, a priority is placed on skill and experience talking to people in pressure situations.

Myers has worked as a correction officer and a title clerk. She's excited about her new job but is cognizant of the demands of long shifts and emotional calls. She has taken a course on stress management and knows that if work becomes too much, she needs to take a break.

"Burnout is definitely a concern of mine," Myers said.

Staff writer Jennifer Brevorka can be reached at 836-4906 or jbrevork@newsobserver.com.

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