Do you ever think about how fortunate we are to live in a world where we can just dial 911 and help arrives? Do you wonder who are the people who make answering our calls for help their focus in life? Or what it is like for them to be at the receiving end of that call for help?
With these questions in mind, I paid a visit to the 911 Dispatch Center at the Indian River County Sheriff's Office. Like the other areas of the agency I have investigated, the good people at 911 Dispatch welcomed me and I left with a new insight on the subject. Now when I go to bed at night, I often think of them at their desks waiting just in case I need help. I always knew they were there, but I now sleep more peacefully, having a new understanding of what they do 24-7.
"What makes our team unique is we provide dispatch for both law enforcement and fire rescue for Indian River County including Indian River Shore and Fellsmere," says Lt. Mark Buffington. He heads up the Dispatch Center, and regular readers of Chunky Chat will recognize the last name from some recent ride-alongs I did on road patrol with his son Deputy Ben Buffington (click here and here to see those stories).
"Sebastian Police and Vero Beach Police departments have their own dispatch centers but they transfer all fire rescue requests to us," he explains.
As I sit in his office, I can hear the 6 members of the current shift through the open door calmly taking desperate people's phone calls and dispatching services.
"Every member of our 911 Dispatch team goes through a rigorous hiring process," he says. "Typically they have ten weeks of training for Call Tech which includes 4 weeks of classroom and 6 weeks of training on the floor with a training officer," Lt. Buffington continues. "Then they are required to complete 232 hours of state mandated certification training."
WOW - THAT IS RIGOROUS! And that is not even half of it!
"After that, they spend approximately 90 days as a call taker," he adds. "Next, they receive 120 hours of fire rescue radio training. We have to give them time to develop their skills, so after they have done that for about 60 days, give or take their abilities, they will spend up to 200 hours training on the police radio."
"No wonder they are so calm," I say. "They have seen it all!"
"Almost," he says. "In addition to all that, they have to have the Instant Command System Training through FEMA. They have to take the 100, 200 and 700 courses. Then they have to take Silver Alert, Blue Alert and Amber Alert Training. Then CART training - Child Abduction Response Team Training. And then whatever other training we can feed to them! So they do a lot of training and everybody is in different stages. It will take approximately a year to get fully trained."
I learn that each month, the 911 Dispatch center is currently averaging 5,500 emergency 911 calls and 10,000+ administrative or non-emergency type calls. In 2014, there were 65,811 emergency calls and 170,098 non-emergency calls. They made 49,048 outgoing calls and dispatched 211,948 calls for service.
"We are full service," says Lt. Buffington. "This is a unique group of men and women we have here. Our team can provide over the phone emergency medical dispatch instructions including CPR, how to put pressure on a wound, the Heimlich. You name it, they’ll do it. That’s why their training is so extensive."
They have special Emergency Medical Dispatch flip cards at their fingertips detailing each procedure too, to help when things keep hectic. They work 12 hour shifts, 3 ½ days a week in a row. There are a total of four shift teams: two shifts work Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and half of Weds. The other two shifts work the second half of Wednesday, then Thursday, Friday and Saturday. There are two call takers per shift, and then a fire rescue radio operator. There are also two dispatchers who man the law enforcement radio frequencies. The Primary Channel is what I mostly hear when riding with an officer in the field. Channel Two is the data channel if if an officer needs the dispatcher to run a person’s driver's license or criminal history.
Before I go out onto the floor, I want to learn more about Lt. Buffington and what made him go into this line of work.
"I was in college studying to be a teacher and I had a neighbor who was a vice officer for the City of Miami Beach who talked me into riding along with him," he shares. "The second time I went out with him, they asked me to act as a decoy on a job!"
He explains how law enforcement seemed a "less routine" line of work. I'll say!
"I have been in law enforcement for 33 years now. I was raised in the Hialeah area and I was a cop in Broward County for Cooper City Police Department for almost 10 years. In 1991 we moved up here. My wife and I had a little one at the time."
"LITTLE BEN!" I exclaim. We both laugh. 'Little Ben' is now a strapping officer himself, easily over 6 feet tall.
"Yes, little Ben. And we knew we would have more children and that was not where we wanted to raise them so we came up here. I have 23 years of IRC Sheriff’s Office."
Lt. Buffington started on road patrol.
"Even with ten years in Miami?" I ask.
"Yes, because with IRCSO I was a new officer. You have to learn the system and the community here. The way they do report writing. The court system. You are starting fresh."
He explains how when Gary Wheeler was elected Sheriff, Wheeler formed a Community Oriented Policing Enforcement (COPE) team.
"I had the privilege of working with Donald Hart and Leroy Smith," says Lt. Buffington. "We were the original COPE unit. We were based out of Gifford. Eventually we expanded into other communities. We got to ride a bicycle all hours of the days and nights!"
"So you were always in good shape," I say.
"Well, round IS a shape," he jokes. "Then from there I was promoted to Sergeant. I worked the road as a Sergeant then as a Lieutenant. I was assigned as a Lieutenant in judicial services which is the courthouse. Shortly after that I was moved over here and I have worked in the Dispatch for the last two and a half years."
As we talk, I hear a still-calm but raised voice coming from out on the floor.
"Ma'am, I need you to listen. Ma'am!"
Lt. Buffington says, "What you will find out on our floor is you have to have extremely thick skin as a dispatcher. Nobody calls 911 to wish you a nice day. People call because they need help. They don’t know where else to turn. They may have just found a loved one who has collapsed. Could be my kid fell off his bicycle and hit his head. Could be I heard a bump in the night. I don’t know what it is and I am scared and I need help. It could be my landlord is not fixing things around my place. It runs the gamut. So the majority of callers are at a heightened state and can take it out on you. As a call taker you have to recognize they are not calling you those names. It can become difficult."
"You can't hang up on them," I joke.
Again the call taker's voice: "MAAM! MAAM! WHAT IS YOUR NAME?"
"You have to find a way to take charge of them, especially if it is life saving," he says. "They are panicked and you need to get them calm enough to start CPR to save that person’s life. And that’s tough."
Again from the floor: "CHRISTINE, I NEED YOU TO CALM DOWN."
It is time for me to go out on the floor. I am given a headset so I can listen in on the calls. First I sit with call taker Ashley Lamb. I learn she was the voice I heard earlier trying to calm the caller down. The call volume is high so we don't have time for an interview, but I learn that her entire family is in law enforcement and that she just moved down here from Pittsburgh. She has a masters in biology, with an undergraduate degree in biochemistry. In less than 30 minutes, we receive the following calls:
· 86-year-old has driven into a building
· just a rude lady calling for the heck of it
· discovery of missing teen runaway
· request for wellness check
· burglar alarm is going off
· domestic violence incident
· dogs locked in hot car at shopping center
· need for EMS service
· hit and run at Wal-mart
· request for lock-out service
· saw man who has warrant out for arrest
Ashley calmly takes each call in the same way: "911. Where is your emergency?"
I immediately see how this job requires supreme multi-tasking skills! Ashley is looking at maps, talking on the phone, typing. She is going through the Emergency Medical Dispatch flip cards. In between calls, she explains her multiple computer screens to me, which are filled with multiple boxes of information which makes my eyes cross and brain scramble. There is the telephone system with outside lines, fire and EMS lines, transfers to Sebastian and Vero Beach Police, Florida Highway Patrol, helicopters, tow companies, and alarm companies. There are multiple mapping systems, pending calls screens, boxes showing who is on what call and what kind of call it is and how long they have been on the call. Everything has different color coding. On and on and on and on. Seriously. WOW. No wonder all the training!
Next I moved to call taker Nicholas Caporrino's desk. Nicholas was recently recognized by the Fellsmere Police Department with a lifesaving award for the CPR work he did over the phone for one of the residents. There is a brief lull in calls and we actually get an interview in:
"I was born and raised in Vero Beach - a lifetime resident, third generation," he says. "I went to IRSC Police Academy and when Sheriff Loar offered me a job in 911 Dispatch, I jumped on the opportunity. This is the agency I always wanted to work for!"
At the same time he was going through Police Academy, he also earned a Bachelor’s in Business Administration at IRSC. "I did them both at the same time! So, if you ever want to pull your hair out," he breaks out into laughter. "And I am currently enrolled in their accounting program."
TALK ABOUT MULTI TASKING! This probably prepared him for the job and he didn't even realize it at the time! I ask him what is the biggest challenge in this job?
He thinks about it, then jokes, "Being the only guy in a room full of women! But seriously – keeping up with the constant, almost tragedy of the job. If you really thought about and if you made it personal and actually brought yourself into the incidents, you couldn’t do it. You have to be objective and remained focused on the task. You must recognize if your function does not get completed, no one gets help. It is important not to become morose to those things. The balance is to stay thick skinned and compassionate."
Wow - how true for all in law enforcement and fire rescue!
"We see so much in here because we are exposed to every incident the county handles. This job requires a certain level of personal responsibility. You have to take care of everything and still be a member of the team. You are surmising everything happening in the call, writing the story and still asking questions. As you know the questions you have to ask, it gets easier and easier. I wouldn’t ever want to hear any of the phone calls from when I went to training! It makes me shudder just to think!"
Next I move to dispatcher Brandi Ooley's station. She shows me the Command Line setup on her computer as she inputs vehicle tag information for a deputy on a call. She tells me about Unit Status Checks. "There is a timer that tells us when to check on the well-being of the officer depending on the type of call they are on. We also have a Proximity Alert which tells responders when they are near the residence of an individual known to be a threat to public safety and/or someone who has threatened first responders."
She shows me the color coding on her screen. "Each color means something so I can look over there and know what they are doing at first glance without having to read. Green means en route. Purple they are on scene. Dark pink they are at the station. Green has prisoner in custody. Orange is at hospital with an inmate. Light blue means they are available for calls. They also have GPS in the patrol cars so we can always see where they are on the map."
She explains how they will decide at the start of the shift which role they will take. "In the mornings we will see who wants to do what. Generally once we have a radio we stick with it, unless for example I got tired on Channel 1. We had a rough day and I say somebody please take this. We work like a team on the field. We take care of each other."
Brandi started in the job 11 years ago. "I had a friend that worked here. She talked about it and I said let me try it! I didn’t know what to expect at first about the job. I got cross trained pretty quickly and have been a CTO (Communications Training Officer) for the last 9 years and assistant supervisor for the past 5 years for my shift. I love my job. After 11 years, nothing bothers me! It’s very hard sometimes because we always get the negative. People call and curse us out. We are not allowed to hang up on them. We endure that and it gets tiring at times. Obviously there are downfalls to this job but for the most part I enjoy it."
I see from watching Brandi that the dispatcher juggles other types of multitasking. They are on the radio, looking up other resources, doing driver’s license checks, typing in updates. They are jumping all over the place and not losing sight of who they are talking too.
Next I move to sit with Helene Sposato at the fire rescue radio. It is beyond cool for me to sit there next to the 'female voice of God' I refer to in my Adventures with IRC Fire Rescue book!
"I started in 2001," says Helene. "I left in 2006 until 2010 because I had young kids and shift work became too difficult. When I came back I lost my seniority and had to start from scratch, but now I am a CTO as well."
She used to work night shift but now is on day shift. "The calls at night are usually more severe, but it is a little slower. Whereas during the day I sometimes literally run out of ambulances! Um, can we unplug the phones? Call back later!" She jokes.
Finally I sit with dispatcher Carrie Gielow. "I have been here 8 years," she says. "I used to live in Orlando and I did this for Oveido Police Department. I kind of just fell into the job after I did it as an internship in college. I first went to Ohio and did it there. I took a couple years off when I had my daughter and then I came back to it. I knew how to do it."
She shows me her screens. Everyone has their set up slightly differently.
"You set it up according to how you best function. I like mine this way I can see all the zones."
She shows me the map and how we can even see how fast the deputy cars are going.
She is working police radio 1 and the call box is constantly filling up.
"We are constantly trying to empty our box," she says. "When I have a call to give out and I have two deputies close by, I can zoom in on them and send the one who is closer."
She stops to speak to a deputy on the radio. "Who is with your runaway? Is she injured?"
The time flew and my shift is ending. I check my Facebook to see any comments from my post earlier about being at the 911 Dispatch Center. A friend has posted: "See if you can talk to Patrice Thibedeau!"
As I pack my camera gear up, the night shift is arriving. Lo and behold, Patrice is on shift! I introduce myself and tell her the coincidence about the Facebook post and we have a good laugh. Naturally I seized the opportunity to interview her.
"I started my career in 1980 as a Dispatcher," says Patrice.
"I bet you have heard some things," I say.
"Oh yes," she says knowingly. "I do get a lot of the crazy calls because I am attracted to that I guess. I am a magnet! I think my coping mechanism is to make the job fun and interesting, while not making light of people’s tragedies or anything like that. You can’t take things personally, so I try to make it fun. I love to laugh so I do try to find the humor. And when you find the humor and you can make other people laugh about it then you know it makes it fun instead of sad. I am training a girl now and I tell her nobody calls here for happiness. Nobody calls here to tell you, hey thanks. They call here for problems. It's going to change you. You are no longer going to be that little naïve girl, because you are going to hear everything. And if I can make you laugh out of those problems, then it was worth it. If I can say something or help somebody get help faster or whatever the case is, and I can enjoy doing that, then it has all been worth it."
I ask her to tell me about her career.
"First I worked at Okeechobee Sheriff Office for 4 years, and then I went to work for Florida Highway Patrol, which I LOVED, LOVED, LOVED! I worked there until they closed their communications center which broke my heart. I came to work at IRCSO 1995. Then in 2007, I had 30 years of service, but I was young, like 47. Still I retired after 30 years. And 8 months later I came back and I have been here ever since!"
Why did she come back, I ask.
"I knew I still had to work, and this is what I do. This is what I love, and where my heart is, and where I shine and where I want to be. My goal now is to share my knowledge with the new people and the next generation and also to improve on the things that need changing. That’s how I would like to go out – in a blaze of glory!"
She adds, "I am the oldest one in here now. And when I was with FHP, I was the baby. Now I look at those pictures on the wall over there and I think, I have been a dispatcher longer than 14 of those people have been alive!"
As I leave, Lt. Buffington says, "I hope you can see how each of them has such pride in what they are doing. They take ownership of that airway, and they recognize they are working WITH the firefighters, paramedics and police officers."
I am thankful for each of them!
NOTE: Sandy Fox is the Administrator for our 911 Dispatch Center. She was not in while I was on shift. She plays an integral role at the Dispatch Center and I did not want to leave her out of this blog entry! At left is a photo of her with Deputy Brian Aguiar from the first night of Citizen's Academy last summer. Click here to see that entry.
I am an official, fully vetted volunteer with the Indian River County Sheriff's Office (Citizen's Academy, background checks, fingerprinted, etc.). Since my expertise is photo-journalism, producing these stories is one way I give back to my community.
Read Older Stories: