For dispatchers, every second counts

December 27, 2001

For dispatchers, every second counts


The intense business of saving lives is all in a day's work for Washington County's dispatchers, but with every 911 call comes the pressure of knowing every second and action counts.

"It's stressful, particularly on days when there's lot of calls. It gets depressing when a house burns down before the holidays or a toddler dies," said Bardona Woods, assistant chief of Washington County Fire and Rescue Communications.

Dispatchers are trained to have a calming manner and use repetitive statements. They choose their words carefully to soothe callers, who often are upset, she said.

"We tell them help is on the way and try to get as much information as we can," said Woods, who was a dispatcher for more than 15 years and still occasionally takes calls.


At the conclusion of the call, which can be a few seconds or several minutes, dispatchers can take breaks to relieve the tension, said Woods.

Most of the dispatchers are longtime employees and have either found their own ways of dealing with stress or rely on techniques taught in stress-management courses, she said.

"Stress-management experts encourage taking care of yourself - eat right, don't drink heavily, and exercise," she said.

Remaining composed helps, said dispatcher Keith Bowen, 46.

"The best dispatchers work objectively. If you are emotionally or personally involved in situations, you can't do the job," said Bowen, who once took a call from his grandmother when his grandfather had a stroke.

Dispatchers typically take about 30 calls a day and have logged about 17,000 fire and rescue incidents so far this year, he said.

The most difficult calls are those involving a cardiac arrest or an injured child, he said.

In some cases dispatchers give cardiopulmonary resuscitation instructions to families, knowing there is little chance the patient will be revived, he said.

During those times, the dispatcher's job is to comfort and help the patient's family feel useful, he said.

"It makes them feel that they did everything they could," said Bowen.

Depressed people that hit rock bottom during the holidays account for a glut of pyschiatric-related calls, he said.

Bowen said he keeps his holiday spirit by leaving the job at work, although he does have a scanner he listens to at home.

"If you eat and breathe this stuff, it'll get to you," said Bowen.

He used to smoke to deal with stress but has since given it up, he said.

Former dispatcher Tim Gargana said he liked being a dispatcher but was frustrated by not seeing the outcome of his efforts.

"You feel helpless sometimes but your training kicks in. If you can't remain detached, it affects everyone," he said.

Woods said she still remembers a call she took more than 10 years ago when a child was found floating in pool.

She alerted fire and rescue companies who were able to revive the boy, she said.

A few days later, it hit her hard when she found out the child was brain dead and was taken off life support, she said.

"I felt responsible even though I wasn't," said Woods.

Dispatchers are often overlooked, she said.

"Patients see the ambulance crew and thank them and they see the doctors at the hospital and thank them, but few think about the person taking the call."

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