SPENCER, Mass. -- When she answers the telephone, all Spencer emergency dispatcher Holly Collette hears is screaming.
It doesn t stop, despite Mrs. Collette s requests for the caller to calm down and tell her what s wrong. She sends several cruisers to the address that shows up on the 911 screen but she s not sure what they ll find. She keeps asking questions of the caller and when the pitch of the screams changes, she s pretty sure the woman wants an ambulance for someone other than herself.
Officers arrive and find a man, unconscious, not breathing and in cardiac arrest. An ambulance isn t far behind and the man is taken to the hospital, but does not survive.
The call is in stark contrast to the man who rings the police station the night before Thanksgiving, angry because he cannot find a place to donate food and ready to take out his frustrations on Mrs. Collette. He is convinced there are people starving in town and quickly becomes upset because, aside from providing the telephone number for a church, Mrs. Collette cannot tell him what to do. After two calls to the dispatcher, he gives up.
It is the never knowing what will happen next that makes Mrs. Collette like her job. I have a short attention span, she jokes.
But it takes a certain kind of person to do this job -- one who doesn t take personally things that are said in the heat of a crisis. Sometimes, dispatchers said, callers don t seem to realize that real people are on the other end of the 911 line. They want help, but then begin berating the people who can help them.
I heard one dispatcher say something to a caller the other day, said Beverly J. Mimeault, supervisor of the state police Regional Dispatch Center in New Braintree. She told him, I m not the one you re mad at.
Many times dispatchers are therapists. Sometimes they must try to read minds. And there are always calls that leave them laughing.
In New Braintree, 13 dispatchers provide services for 10 towns: the four Brookfields, plus Hardwick, New Braintree, Brimfield, Holland, Wales and Petersham. Sometimes, the circular room where they work at the front of the state police training facility is deadly quiet. Many times, it is not.
Like Mrs. Collette, dispatcher Charles V. McCoy likes the ever-changing nature of his job.
I like weeding through the chaos and making sense of it, he said during an interview at his post in New Braintree. It s satisfying.
He had wanted to be a dispatcher since he was a young teenager and volunteered for the job when he turned 16. He worked as a volunteer before being hired as a dispatcher years later.Oxford dispatcher Alan R. Jeskey finds satisfaction in his job even though he can quickly remember some very frustrating nights. Once, a man made 32 calls to 911 in an hour, berating the police and calling us terrorists. But those calls pale when there s an opportunity to help. Even though it seems like a small thing, Mr. Jeskey said, he is proud that he was able to reunite a young girl with her lost backpack using information gleaned from a library book. Another time he gathered details about a vehicle that hit a pedestrian and did a little detective work that helped officers find the car and charge the driver.
When you do make a difference, you feel really good, he said. You go home happy.
Sometimes, though he is able to leave the job behind at the end of his shift, things he hears trouble him. When kids call 911 and mom and dad are fighting and you can hear it in the background. Being a dad, you want to protect them, he said.
One New Braintree dispatcher said she was overcome during a call several years ago. A man s 2-year-old had fallen from a dock into the lake. He got the child out of the water and, she said, she gave the best medical advice she could come up with though she didn t know what results it might bring. When she heard the child cry, she joined in with tears of her own, relieved the toddler was breathing. That call came before dispatchers were trained to give emergency medical advice.
It prompted the dispatcher to become an EMT so she could offer proper information in a medical emergency.
Dispatchers know they help many people but sometimes they feel unappreciated. After a big storm, residents thank highway crews for clearing the roads, police for sorting out their car accidents, firefighters for extricating them from their mangled vehicles and ambulance personnel for patching them up after a crash. I want to say, `Hey, what about us? Ms. Mimeault said. We re the first first responders.
A few years ago, a holiday crash killed one person. Ms. Mimeault knew the victim. Everyone who responded was affected by the tragedy, but when the time came for a stress debriefing in which emergency personnel could vent, the dispatchers who handled the call weren t included. It is clear that call will be forever in her mind, and today, she said, she believes dispatchers are offered more services for coping with the stress of their jobs.
Most of the dispatchers stay at their jobs for years. Those who leave usually take jobs in law enforcement or fire services. Those with many years on the job have seen technology make their work easier with computers that show a caller s address and may even tell them if a person has special needs. They have noticed the number of calls increasing with the use of cell phones. They dread calls from suicidal people and always hope they can convince a person that there are other options. They chuckle over calls where people are stuck in their bathrooms or in other humorous but not dangerous predicaments.
Mrs. Collette has worked in Spencer since 1995 and recently spent more than three hours on a call that ended with a man shooting himself while officers were outside. She was able to get him to send his children out and also learned that he d killed his wife days earlier and buried her body.
The information helped police find the deceased woman sometime later.
Because Spencer is a small community, there is some camaraderie among police officers and dispatchers, especially on the evening shift, which is staffed by the same people most of the time. The officers know that Mrs. Collette is the one who will be sending them help should they find themselves in a bad situation. They know that if she doesn t hear from them a few minutes after they arrive on a call, she ll check to be sure they re OK. They know she can be counted on.
It s good to have someone there that you know you can trust, said Officer Norman L. Hodgerney Jr.Contact Kim Ring by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org