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S.F. Emergency Dispatcher Wins State Award

A Santa Fe emergency dispatcher was the difference between life and death for a young man who was struck by lightning last summer while working on a house at Las Campanas.
It was just another day at the office for Melissa Sisneros, but it contributed to her recent award as New Mexico Emergency-Medical Dispatcher of the Year.

“I love what I do. I love helping people,” said Sisneros, who is 28 and has been a dispatcher for nearly six years. “It’s a very rewarding job but not in the way that we get recognized. … You do get the people who call back and say, ‘Thank you very much.’ It’s few and far between, but we know we are giving a service to the community.”

Community service is a family tradition, said Sisneros, the daughter of former county Sheriff and city Police Chief Ray Sisneros, and Rosita Sisneros, a nurse.

The St. Michael’s High School graduate worked at St. Vincent Hospital when she was in high school and for a few years afterward before taking a computer test to become a dispatcher. She was familiar with the job because her older sister, Marie Tafoya, has worked for about
15 years at the Santa Fe Regional Emergency Communications Center, which answers calls for law enforcement, firefighters and paramedics in all of Santa Fe County.

Sisneros has dispatched every kind of call, but she usually works the fire phones so she can put her medical knowledge to work. Most calls the fire department responds to involve medical needs.

The award from the state Emergency Medical Systems Bureau commends Sisneros’ skills in pre-arrival medical instructions, the advice she gives 911 callers while they’re waiting for paramedics to arrive.

Those instructions are the most challenging area for dispatchers, said Dr. Laura Kay, medical director of the Emergency Communications Center. Kay, who performs routine audits of how dispatchers handle calls, noted Thursday that most errors in judgment occur during those critical pre-arrival minutes.

When she answered the call about last summer’s late-afternoon lightning strike, Sisneros was told two men had been knocked down. One of them was walking around, but the caller said the other — his grandson — was unconscious and not responsive.

Sisneros told the man he needed to take his grandson’s pulse, and when he found none, she told him how to start chest compressions and how to do cardiopulmonary resuscitation. Since Las Campanas has a contract with private paramedics, they responded first, followed by Santa Fe County firefighter/paramedic Jess M. Ivey.

Ivey expected the worst, he wrote in a letter of support for Sisneros, but when he arrived at the scene, he found a scared and burned, but living, victim.

The man had burn marks on his stomach and an ankle. The lightning apparently had contacted his large, metal belt buckle, traveled down his leg, and exited through his boot, leaving a hole in the leather. The man’s chest hair and eyebrows had been burned off as well.
“Had it not been for Melissa’s training, quick thinking and calm disposition, the outcome would have been very different,” Ivey wrote.

Instructions about CPR come naturally to Sisneros, who holds down another job as a health and safety specialist and CPR training instructor for the American Red Cross.

Her supervisor says she is upbeat, empathetic and professional. Sisneros said she peppers callers with “repetitive persistence” until she gets the information she needs to help them.
“You just keep asking them the same question over and over,” she said. “They are going to react how you react, so if you are panicking or freaking out or getting stressed, then they start getting that way. So you just have to remain calm.”

Sisneros will receive her award next Friday at a luncheon as part of the state EMS Conference in Albuquerque.

The Santa Fe dispatch center has trouble staying fully staffed in its high-stress environment and has eight vacancies. For information on how to apply, contact Santa Fe County human resources at 992-9880.

Contact Julie Ann Grimm
at 986-3017 or [email protected]

1. Melissa Sisneros has been named NewMexico Emergency-Medical Dispatcher of the Year. I love what I do. I love helping people, said Sisneros, who has been a dispatcher for nearly six years.