Celebrating Heroes

National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week Honors the Voices Who Serve as Lifelines

National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week 2018 is celebrated April 8-14, honoring behind-the-scenes folks who answer the 9-1-1 calls and serve as lifelines for those in dire need. Iconically, the various factions under the public safety umbrella are universally denoted by a particular color representing a specific brand of service provision. Law enforcement is blue, red is for fire/rescue services, and public safety telecommunicators heeding your distress signals are symbolized by gold. Often known as “the calm voice in the dark,” these distress call-answering professionals are nothing shy of nuggets we never see but always know will be there in times of utter crisis and chaos.

They are otherwise known as the “First, first responders.” Like their street-level counterparts, business never ceases and the phones are always on. You call, they are on the way!

Gold line in the black represents the “Calm Voice in the Dark” which we know as public safety telecomunicators or 9-1-1 operators who heed distress calls. (Credit: Facebook/Plainfield IL Police Department)

For members of the public, “the calm voice in the dark” denotes something different. It typifies a voice answering the call for help during dark, macabre instances inflicted by another. It could mean a medical situation as well. Whichever category it may be, the public safety umbrella contains resources to suit situations and resolutions.

For me, that “calm voice in the dark” credo was rather literal; other than a brief stint on day-shift, I spent my entire career as a police communications officer working the midnight shift. The only glow by which to work was via the illuminated cast from the computer screens and dispatch console interfaces. We had lighting, but always found it intensified the aura, thus subdued ambient lighting was the charm lending some calm. After each shift concluded, I’d drive home in the opposite direction of the morning commuters…thinking I’m glad you didn’t need us last night…sadly, a handful of folks did.

Holed-up in a windowless room, stationed in a chair and tethered to a headset which dialed-in all phone calls in addition to the police/fire/EMS radio console gave plenty fuel for headaches. The stress-load is not rhetoric. My self-esteem was torpedoed on day one and for months thereafter; I constantly thought No human can do this job! With time, guidance from veteran dispatchers, and perseverance…I found my ideations to be inaccurate.

Nurturing cohorts and supportive supervisors pushed and pulled me along. Fear is no light-fare human emotion with which to wrestle. But I did as many others before and after me: I forged on.

I got better at the job: quicker, more confident, less jolted, more patient with human hysteria, better versed in human psychology. My human BS-detector was calibrated like never before. I eventually became a communications training officer (CTO) which was like living for two—especially if a trainee had zero experience. But I always reminded myself that I, too, was once fresh and inexperienced. Revisiting the virtue of patience is a necessity in the public safety domain. Like joining an in-progress flick, you do your best to gauge what is going on without flustering what may have been missed moments prior.

The gambit of what public safety operators do can fill reams of paper portraying life-saving situations as well as lives lost along the journey to provide sustenance. Not every shift has optimal outcomes. Dallas police dispatchers know this quite well, especially in July 2016 when five Dallas police officers were ambushed and assassinated on the spot by a lone gunman hating blue and badges.

Public safety telecommunicators witness the full spectrum of human existence, from alarms to zealots. Some folks allow a minor fender-bender to ruin their year. Public safety assets see those as dime-a-dozen paper-cuts. Compared to dealing with mayhem and death via the phone lines, public safety radio mania at times oddly becomes an acceptable static after realizing it is a dial they can not control. The calls keep coming by no schedule whatsoever. It is nature’s way, I suppose.

Sometimes, nature takes it toll. I judge not how long or how brief any public safety professional filled the role. Only that they stepped forward to guide unfamiliar voices on the line to a destination away from despair. I remember the “Signal-20s” (mentally disturbed persons) who called daily with creative fabrications. Patience was key during those phone-in episodes. The cops and firefighters working the streets—and to whom I was linked via the public safety radio—relied on me and other public safety telecommunicators to keep them safe. How’d we do that? Up-to-date and comprehensive information served in bite-sized nuggets (can’t tie-up the frequencies reading a manuscript). Newer things happen while other things are happening.

It is not just lore that a public safety dispatcher’s job is to send help while also ensuring field personnel get to go home safe to their blood families. The bonds are rather fascinating; the chronic voice messaging is sometimes met face-to-face. And that latter factor means all parties are performing their roles with utmost efficiency. It’s not easy, but it can be done. Mutual reliance is a deep human characteristic commonly exuded in the public safety profession. In fact, it is a requisite ingredient for survival.

Happy National Telecommunicators Week to all of our #911dispatchers! Thank you for being the voice of calm, reason, and understanding when we are often at our most fearful and vulnerable moments in life. (Credit: Facebook/Watson Consoles)

Ultimately, those online experiences as a police communications officer helped me when I was sworn-in and working as a street cop. Did I pretend I was going to find and arrest the pink elephant stealing brooms from “Mrs. P’s” utility closet on the daily? Of course. To see her rest assured—Monday thru Sunday—was a success in and of itself. It was not her fault dementia took over the wheelhouse.

Although I could not know it at the time, the calls for service from “Mrs. P” helped me to indoctrinate the dynamics of dementia. My mom is afflicted, and it is the only justification for little white lies in order to carry a conversation, albeit a repetitive one.

I know public safety telecommunicators walk around with as much mental baggage as cops, firefighters, soldiers, ER docs, paramedics and nurses. I do not believe there is a best practice for thwarting the miseries life (human vs. human) can produce. I also know that one must release burdens picked up from work-related duties—or at least try to shed dead skin picked up from being in the “hot seat” (public safety console chairs).

Like the greatest motion picture or Broadway play you ever saw, so many faceless folks are behind the scenes lending hands in bringing you roles, antagonist/protagonist encounters, and finales. The only difference is that public safety telecommunicators do not go by a script depicting an ending…and they are quite real. Just listen to their voice and hear their words for yourself. Hopefully, you will not need them. However, they’ll be there if you do.

Stephen Owsinski

Stephen Owsinski is an OpsLens Content Manager and Contributor. Owsinski is a retired law enforcement officer whose career included assignments in the Uniformed Patrol Division and Field Training Officer (FTO) unit. He is currently a researcher and writer. Follow Stephen on Twitter @uniformblue.

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