In a room that resembles the belly of the “Star Trek” Enterprise, dozens of people work 24 hours a day, seven days a week as lifelines for people in distress.
At the Combined Transportation Emergency and Communications Center in Central Austin, dispatchers with the Austin Fire Department, the Police Department and Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services are constantly taking calls.
They take calls from elderly people who have fallen, motorists reporting a bad traffic accident or someone who has overdosed on a nasty blend of drugs.
They are an invisible community, according to dispatch supervisor Keli Dean, who says that although they are always poised for disaster, dispatchers are largely underappreciated by callers and the community. When dispatchers make news, for example, it’s because they’ve made mistakes.
In March, Austin fire dispatcher Eric Mackey was disciplined for his inaction in January when a caller alerted 911 to smoke coming from Bert’s Bar-B-Q. Mackey told the caller that the smoke coming from the restaurant near the University of Texas was probably brisket cooking overnight. The restaurant burned down.
But the people who respond to emergencies say they do this unpredictable and emotionally draining job because, at some point, they realized they had the patience to do what no one else would do for any amount of money.
“Some of the stuff I see I don’t need to take home with me,” said Danielle Sosna, 32, a part-time dispatcher. She says the money is good communications medics start at $16 an hour but Sosna works holidays and can get weary from too much adrenaline on a regular basis.
“When everyone else is running away from something,” Sosna said during a break, “we run toward it.”
When callers dial 911, they reach the police department, which is in charge of the main switchboard. Then they are are transferred to EMS, if needed. Each dispatcher has a color-coded guidebook on how to instruct panicked people who call.
They face four computer screens that alert them to incoming calls. On a slow night, the map of Travis County above their heads is almost blank and screens showing traffic on local highways from Texas Department of Transportation cameras show a steady stream of traffic with no accidents in sight.
On the average weekday, a dispatcher answers 25 to 30 calls.
Calls come into the center with muted beeps and then show up on a central computer screen while a dispatcher talks into a headset and types in symptoms of an illness or a description that explains to paramedics what they might find when they go to an address.
A man had been shot in the head and his brain was exposed, a caller told Sosna on a recent Friday night, and another dispatcher tried to talk the caller through giving the man cardiopulmonary resuscitation, which was unsuccessful. On the other side of her, EMS dispatcher David Beckerley sat down and began sending ambulances to one end of the county or another, simply by talking into his headset and watching a map of ongoing incidents on one of his five computer screens.
Beckerley, a former field paramedic, calmly explained that things could always be worse and shrugged off his high-pressure job.
“It just depends on your definition of stress,” he said. “Being in a room full of people while they watch you try to resuscitate their relative that’s stress.”
Although Dean has worked as a dispatcher for 12 years and loves her job, she notes a high turnover rate among EMS dispatchers in recent years.
“It can be too difficult emotionally for some people, because you want to help every person who calls,” Dean said. “But they’re not your family, and you have to be able to separate your heart from your job.”
Potential candidates for the position have to undergo a 10-step process, including a written exam that includes questions about national dispatching standards, a multitasking test and psychological as well as physical evaluations.
Nan Starkey, a six-year veteran, is a single mom who works the 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. shift. She has wavy blond hair, a red tongue ring and expressive hazel eyes. Even if she smirks at her computer screen while talking to a caller who may not need an ambulance or frowns in frustration at an alarm company’s frequent calls, she is always patient. Sometimes she finds herself calling a paramedic to find out what happened to a particular caller, trying to find closure.
“It’s like reading a book and closing it partway through,” she said. “We never get to see the end of the story.”
Sometimes, the story is the same day after day. Sosna mentioned that there are regulars who call just for attention, such as a caller who dials 911 every night to say she’s overdosed on drugs, has injured herself or is feeling suicidal.
“We have to go (to her house) every time,” Sosna said. “Because one night might be the night she drank a bottle of bleach. To (callers), it’s an emergency, and you have to be in their world with them.
“You have to take it seriously every time.”