Telecommunicators honored this week
This is National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week, and the Fairfield Police Department issued a press release:
“We honor and remember our dedicated dispatchers for the thankless job they do every day. Few realize or remember dispatchers are the first step, and usually the most important, in saving lives and maintaining law and order. This is because they are behind the scenes coordinating all those big shiny vehicles that show up for an emergency.”
Dispatcher Tammy Thomas has been working at the Fairfield Law Enforcement Center for 20 years, since back when it was located next to the fire station and typewriters were still in use.
Now, as supervisor and trainer of the department, which has a total of six dispatchers to cover 24/7 hours of operation, Thomas works days, sometimes on her own, sometimes with another dispatcher.
“This is a job that requires multi-tasking and can be stressful. You either like it or you don’t,” said Thomas.
Fairfield Police Chief Julie Harvey agrees.
“Some think dispatchers are secretaries,” Harvey said. “They are not. It can be very hectic, very stressful and dispatchers have to juggle so many things. I’ve had some dispatchers on the job for a short while, leave for lunch and never return.”
Law enforcement dispatchers, or public safety telecommunicators, work with five different computer screens in Fairfield, each with different information and tasks. They answer the non-emergency phone line and 911, route calls, talk with patrol officers in cars, determine what emergency service is needed and dispatch for Fairfield police, Jefferson County sheriff, ambulance services and Fairfield Fire Department as well as communicate with state law enforcement and interact with walk-in traffic to the law center lobby.
Thomas and her fellow dispatchers know and use numerical codes in talking by phone and radio with law enforcement, such as “10-6,” means “busy stand-by” and “10-20” means “location.”
Dispatchers know and understand a protocol for talking a frantic caller through CPR, stay on the line until law enforcement arrives on scene when a domestic disturbance call comes in, and strive to be courteous to callers and walk-ins under all circumstances.
“We’re certified in CPR and recertify every two years,” said Thomas. “I’ve never had to use it on an actual person, just the training dummies and talking others through it on the phone. We ask questions when someone calls for medical service, we have a protocol we follow, to help direct the ambulance about whether it’s an emergency or non-emergency. Any structure fire call, an ambulance is automatically dispatched.”
Harvey said Fairfield uses a field training program, conducted by Thomas and one other dispatcher certified in training.
“It’s 12 weeks of working with another dispatcher,” said Harvey. “After that, a new dispatcher is sent to a 40-hour emergency medical dispatch school, followed by another 40-hour school at the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy. Dispatchers have to be state certified.”
Harvey and Thomas were hired in Fairfield near the same time.
“When I first started, dispatchers had one computer screen, used typewriters and hand-written logs,” said Harvey. “Now there’s five screens; one’s for GPS, one is state information, one for All Points, one is the dispatch log and the other calls for service.
Thomas said she doesn’t mind working the tele-communications alone on a shift.
“It’s nice to work alone because you have a system, a way of doing things,” she said. “But since we have set shifts when I work with another dispatcher, there’s two who share the same shift as I do, so I only work with one or the other, unless I’m training.
“The people I work with are the best thing about the job.”
She met her husband on the job. She has been married to Fairfield Police Capt. Dave Thomas for 13 years.
“Our motto is, when we’re at work, we’re not married,” she said.
A lot of changes have happened in 20 years, such as technology, but even job duties.
“Female dispatchers used to double as jail matrons when I started,” said Thomas. “If a female came into jail, we did the search. It wasn’t my favorite part of the work.”
Wednesday morning Thomas had computers that were not operating correctly after a recent upgrade, and displayed her multi-tasking and stress management skills while talking with a computer support company in Ottumwa. Harvey and other police officers came into the tele-communications center to offer help. The phone kept ringing and radio communications continued.
The official press release continues:
“Dispatchers are the professional, calm, and caring voices at the other end of a 911 call when our citizens need emergency assistance. Not only do dispatchers make sure all emergency services get to the scene of the emergency, along with numerous other public safety jobs, they continue to check the status of the scene, the citizens, and responding units. That’s why police, fire and EMS call them our heroes.”
When emergency services personnel are in harm’s way, there is a strong, confident voice that comes over the radio, frequently, making sure all are still safe. Please take time this week to join Fairfield Police Department personnel in giving a huge thank you to all our dispatchers.”