'In the blind" -- The challenges of being a 9-1-1 operator
"9-1-1, what is your emergency?"
A majority of people will never hear those words on the other end of the line, but for those who do, it is an overlooked comfort in what is assuredly one of the worst days of their lives.
Americans have for the most part grown accustomed to knowing that when misfortune hits, there will be a person on the other end of the line ready to dispatch the much-needed help they seek. The communication specialists who work the tireless and often thankless shifts at the Public Safety Center are, in reality, the first responder of first responders.
"We ask a lot of them," Dana Becker, public safety support supervisor with the city of Dickinson, said.
Becker said that the rigors of their responsibilities require a certain breed of people—people who are capable at multitasking, are good listeners and are calm under pressure.
"To be successful, you have to be cool under pressure and take a breath if you have to, then get back to running," she said. "None of the conventional stress management techniques really work for a position like this. You can't just walk away and regroup; you have to find a method of stress relief that works for you."
It's hard on operators, Becker said, when they develop a relationship, albeit a quick one, with the voice on the other end of the line—only for that voice to disappear into the ether after emergency services arrive, with no closure for the operator.
"It's a challenging position because we are the first responders to these situations, even before the police or ambulance arrive, and we're talking to people during one of the worst events in their life," Becker said. "Our communication specialists are having to deal with a person screaming at them and they have to be able to stay calm, controlled and get that protocol rolling. Then when the officers or firemen show up, it's 'OK, bye'. That's hard emotionally and mentally."
Much more than the well-trained voice guiding callers through the worst moments of their lives, these multitasking experts are responsible for everything from answering emergency calls to dispatching and tracking officers in the field.
"We get everything from the many animal complaints that come in daily to more serious matters like an active shooter call, CPR and fires. Fires are my nemesis," Michelle Kihiro, communication specialist with the city of Dickinson, said. "Fires really bother me because my training is essentially nullified and there is really nothing that I can do except to inform the caller to get out of the house. Luckily, our fire department responds to a page very fast and so we know that at the very least the people will be OK."
First responders, such as firefighters, police or EMS, are more often recognized for the challenges of their duties while the role of the communication specialists often goes unheralded.
The communication specialists that spoke with The Press emphasised the mental health challenges that accompany hearing some of the most horrific details of situations while often never knowing the outcomes—allowing for the mind to grow wild with imagination on what became of the 8-year-old boy who lost his arm in a farming accident, or the 87-year-old war veteran who suffered the heart attack.
"We don't often get the closure that can help us cope with the zero to 100 emotional rollercoaster we just went through," Kihiro said. "But for me it's knowing the fact that I just helped somebody, even if they don't know it or acknowledge it. I know it, and that's what helps me get through the day."
Being in a constant state of "crisis mode" has been shown to contribute to many operators experiencing an erosion of their mental health over the years. In a study by the American Addiction Centers these circumstances have been attributed as the reason a number of operators suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
"It's the most thankless job I've ever worked, but yet the most rewarding," Kihiro said. "I can work nights, weekends, holidays, miss weekends with my kids, and people don't know that. What they do know is that if they need 9-1-1, we are here. We are part of the whole picture here helping people, and I hope that people can understand that and appreciate that."
The responsibilities and pressures that accompany being a communication specialist are not for the faint of heart, and require that they understand and accept that people's lives will ultimately depend on the accuracy and speed of what they do.
"You're just a voice on the other end of the line a lot of the times, and most of the time you're in the blind," Megan Jorgenson, communication specialist with the city of Dickinson, said. "We go through about a three-month training and are on the floor really quickly, and you're on the radio pretty quickly. I remember my first night shift when I was on my own and sure enough we had a shooting and it was definitely an adrenaline rush while at the same time in the back of your mind you're questioning if you have what it takes to handle the situation."
Jorgenson said it was after that incident that she knew that she was not only prepared for the rigors of the position, but capable.
"When the dust settles and you're sitting there, that's kind of when it hits you that 'yeah, I can do this'," she said. "But within seconds you're on to the next call and you just compartmentalize it for later."
The city of Dickinson has 13 positions for communication specialists, with one position currently open. Individuals interested in learning how to become a 911 dispatcher in North Dakota must meet minimum requirements as established by North Dakota's Emergency Services Communications Coordinating Committee.
Candidates must be able to pass a criminal background check and a drug screening, and must have the following to be eligible for a 911 dispatcher job:
• High school diploma or GED
• Valid driver's license
• No felony convictions
For more information about becoming a communication specialist, visit dickinsongov.com.