Voices In The Dark: 911 Dispatchers Celebrating Telecommunicators Week
Starting Sunday, April 12, Newtown’s emergency dispatchers will join colleagues across the nation celebrating National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week.
This week-long event, initially set up in 1981 by Patricia Anderson of the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office in California, is a time to celebrate and thank those who dedicate their lives to serving the public.
But until two recent and popular 9-1-1 television series began focusing in part on these true first responders who pick up the line whenever someone in trouble calls, the work of emergency dispatchers was widely unrecognized and perhaps even taken for granted by many who never had an experience where they needed to call for help.
But as Newtown Emergency Communications Director Maureen Will, RPL, CPE has said in recent years, this first critical component of the emergency response chain is getting the attention and respect it deserves.
“Here in Newtown we celebrate the women and men who are unofficially known as the ‘Voice in the Dark,’ and although we are not classified as first responders like police, fire and EMS, the Public Safety Telecommunicators (PST), or more commonly known as dispatchers, are true first responders,” she told The Newtown Bee.
Newtown employs nine full time emergency dispatchers along with several other experienced and long standing per-diem staffers, Will said. They work at Newtown Emergency Communications Center (NECC), within Town Hall South at 3 Main Street.
“There are highly trained individuals who have dedicated themselves to public safety,” she explained. “Each one brings a unique skill to the console that they man every day.”
What It Takes
Will said staff, after being selected for the position as a PST, must spend a minimum of 380 hours in a training program, sitting beside a certified trainer. They learn radio protocol — policies and procedures — telephone techniques, and become certified for Emergency Medical Dispatching.
Once they successfully complete the training program, dispatchers begin working with their partner on a designated shift.
The staff at NECC works eight-hour shifts, days, evenings, and midnights, five days a week with two or three days off, Will said.
“Weekends, holidays, in good weather and bad, they are here for you no matter the time, the day of week, or the conditions outside,” she said. “The calls they answer can range from alarms to motor vehicle accidents, assaults and missing persons, to handling countless medical issues, from a fall to a cardiac arrest.”
Regardless of what is thrown at them, Will added, “this staff will stay on the line until a responder arrives, all the while talking to whomever is on the line — answering the radio, and entering the information into the Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) program, while the secondary dispatcher is also handling other radio traffic, walk in complaints and phone calls, or another emergency that requires immediate response by responders.”
During this time of the pandemic, just like everyone else, Newtown’s dispatch staff must take precautions such as social distancing within the center, performing console and center hygiene for equipment, and adapting to new procedures for responders.
“As one member put it — ‘Every day is a new day!’ and ensures that they do their part by following the social distancing measures before and after they go to work, and anyone who had a second job has chosen to drop it so as to be safe for here,” Will said. “We have separated staff at their work stations to maintain a safe six-foot distance, and each day the consoles are cleaned by the staff member who will be working there.”
Celebrated And Appreciated
National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week is normally celebrated across the country with lunches or dinners — special incentives or other activities where staff and responders come together, Will said, but this year is different.
“Although it will be calm within the center, staff will be celebrated and appreciated,” Will said. “Each and every staff member is dedicated to serving our community during the pandemic, and will stay on that line with you when you need us. As their Director, I am honored to serve with them regardless of the circumstances, and provide them with all the tools that they need to keep the community safe.”
One of Will’s earliest jobs was as a dispatcher in Brookfield, a position she accepted after serving as a Woodbury constable right out of high school. After becoming a police officer in Brookfield, she spent the next 30 years on that force, retiring as a Captain. As part of that job, she handled training in communications.
About six months after retirement, she began a new career in Newtown as the Director of Emergency Communications. In that position, she served and consulted on a national level, and saw her Newtown team honored for their work during and after the 12/14 tragedy by the Atlantic Chapter of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO).
One of those communications professionals, Robert Nute — also a firefighter and fire training officer — was chosen as the national winner in the Second Annual Smart Telecommunicator Awards, sponsored by Rave Mobile Safety’s Smart-911 system.