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Dispatchers' invisible work guides emergency responders

Kathy Scott, dispatcher supervisor for Front Royal Police Department dispatch center, looks over the shoulder of Jennifer Lowery as she takes a call inside the department on Tuesday. Rich Cooley/Daily

By Joe Beck

FRONT ROYAL - Some of the earliest reports that something had gone terribly wrong during the terror-marred Boston Marathon on Monday came from people like Kathie Scott.

Scott supervises dispatchers in the Front Royal Police Department, a group of telecommunicators whose voices crackle over scanners and squad car radios 24 hours a day, seven days week. Whether in Boston or Front Royal, lives can depend on those radio transmissions.

"It's never dull," Scott said in her office Tuesday. "You never know when you pick up the phone who it is and what their issue is going to be."

One call may be somebody complaining about a barking dog or a neighbor running his lawnmower after sunset. The next may be the first inkling of a drama destined to rock the world.

Scott spoke about dispatchers during National Public Safety Telecommunications Week, an annual event held during the second full week of April. Unnoticed by most of the public, dispatchers come and go with regularity in public safety agencies.

"They truly are unsung heroes," Scott said. "It's like a lot of things. You don't hear about them unless something goes bad."

The job isn't for everybody. The stress felt by callers can be contagious, and the shift work takes a toll on family life.

"I would say there's a fair amount of turnover," Scott said.

But Scott has stuck with the job since she answered a help wanted advertisement and walked into the department for an interview in early 2001. She was a small business owner looking for steadier job with good insurance.

"That's why I came, but when I got here I realized how much I truly love this job," she said.

Scott became the department's communication supervisor almost three years ago, a job in which she currently oversees six full-time dispatchers who take 3,500 phone calls a month. The number of calls that require town police to be dispatched runs between 1,000 and 1,500 depending on the time of year.

The hardest calls come when there are several people on the line raising their voices at each other in anger, panic or some combination of the two. Dispatchers have to sort out addresses, the nature of emergencies and other information officers need, including potential risks they may find when they arrive on the scene.

"We get them started, give them all the details and make sure they're going into an environment as safe as you can get them into," Scott said.

The pre-hiring screenings and training for dispatchers have grown more rigorous in the years since Scott was first hired mainly on the basis of a good interview and a background check. Today's job applicants must also submit to lie detector and standardized tests and more extensive background checks. The biggest source of failure among job applicants comes from an inability to handle multi-tasking, Scott said.

But the extra scrutiny only goes so far in determining how well a dispatcher will do when she gets a call from a person at what Scott calls the "highest point of stress."

"You can pass the test, you can have a great interview, but when you're on the job, sometimes it doesn't work out," Scott said. "You really can't afford mistakes here."

Technology also has changed the work of dispatchers in several ways over the last decade. Many tasks that used to be handwritten are now performed with computerized equipment.

There are more calls for service, many of which come from youngsters complaining about being bullied online. The speed of communications with cell phones and social media has stripped away inhibitions that used to head off interpersonal conflicts among children, Scott said.

"When I was a kid, I had time to go home and had to pick up the phone to call someone," she said.

Trying to bring order out of the chaotic early stages of an emergency isn't easy, but Scott is proud of the dispatchers who find a way to do it everyday.

"I don't find stress to be a big issue," she said. "I guess I handle stress pretty well. I guess we're all like that. We handle it and then go home."

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com


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