The Portland Police Department’s dispatch center is on the third floor of headquarters at 109 Middle Street. It’s shocking to walk into that room, since the only available light comes from computer screens. Because the overhead lighting creates a glare on the screens, people find it more comfortable to work on their consoles in the dark atmosphere.
Each person who works in the room has a console with several monitors. Shavonne Shinay was handling calls as a 911 operator and was also the South Portland dispatcher this particular day. The word "multitasking" took on new meaning as the elements of Shinay’s job became evident. At her console were seven screens, two telephones, and a different mouse for each of three separate monitors.
The 911 calls answered by Shinay are entered into the computer system, which then filters each call into the proper dispatch screen. The calls are color-coded, according to seriousness, and they appear that way onscreen, with red being highest priority and blue second. Shinay says, "You never know what you’re going to get."
"Our room is filled and there is no growth room now," says Tom Cavanaugh, who has been Director of Communications for the police department since March 2010, and is in charge of the 37 dispatchers who work at Middle Street.
Cavanaugh stated, "There are 10 consoles and sometimes all 10 are full, now that we’re a consolidated dispatch center." This came about after a merger with Cape Elizabeth two years ago, and the addition of South Portland last year. The South Portland dispatchers physically came to Portland to work.
Everyone is being cross-trained now, so each person working in the area will be capable of handling any job there.
Cavanaugh has had 25 years in public safety. He was a deputy sheriff in California and then worked as a dispatcher in Salt Lake City, Utah, which had one of the first consolidated dispatch centers in the country. He worked for a public safety software vendor before coming to Portland with his family, and says, "They all love it here." And so does he.
Regarding employment in the dispatch center, Cavanaugh stated, "We want to get the most qualified people for the job," and it is not an easy job to handle. Police filling overtime shifts are sometimes assigned to the dispatch center, so they are familiar with both ends of the job. Sgt. Robert Doherty has great respect for the people in those positions. "There isn’t a more difficult task than that of our 911 operators," he says. "It’s a challenging job that’s recorded and scrutinized."
Those applying for the job have to take a two-hour computerized test, which has to do with multitasking and retention of information. A candidate also must be able to type 35 words per minute.
Training lasts three months for answering the phones before being able to work at that aspect of the job alone. Then it would be another three months for training to be a dispatcher for police or fire.
There is no average length of stay for the job. Some people have been here more than 20 years. Two men working that day had been on the job for 16 years and 17 years respectively. One said of the other: "He had hair when he started working here."
Bonnie Ray has been on the job for 23 years. "I love it," she says—"most days. It’s a tough job but you can have fun at it, and also help people."
In addition to their responsibilities for obtaining call information and dispatching the necessary resources for the specific situation, the telecommunicators are trained to give pre-arrival instructions when dealing with medical emergencies. They are trained to tell people how to give CPR, relay techniques to control bleeding, and even give childbirth instructions, if necessary, while reassuring those on the line that help is on the way.
It is a very stressful job, as is that of a police officer. "When you come in here—like an officer—you give up certain things," said Cavanaugh. The hours are not regular workday hours; you have to work weekends and holidays. And then there’s overtime.
Many people would welcome the extra bucks in their paychecks that overtime brings, but Cavanaugh says the biggest complaint of dispatchers relates to forced overtime. There is a minimum number of people that must be working at any one time, which can cause a problem if someone is off sick and that spot has to be covered. A little over half of the people work two eight-hour shifts and two twelve-hour shifts. The others work five eight-hour shifts.
Cheryl Brewster was in charge of the communications room that day and was also going to work an overtime shift, but she had no complaints pertaining to the extra hours.
Brewster has spent 11 ½ years as a dispatcher. She was the first dispatcher invited to join the police department’s peer support team, and is now a peer counselor.
There are times when a specific call may be so disturbing that counseling sessions may be called for.
Stress certainly plays a role in this job. Dispatchers feel very connected to the officers and feel responsible for their safety. There are also several dispatchers married to officers.
The department has a stress debriefing program, comprised of peer counseling from within, and an outside counselor might be called in under specific situations.
During the summer of 2011 there was a homicide that was described in extremely graphic terms during an upsetting phone call. Everyone involved in that call was required to engage in one counseling session. Peripheral people have a choice as to whether they want to be involved.
Brewster feels that having dispatchers participate in the debriefing process with the officers who were on the scene is very important. "It helps you to completely understand the situation."
April 8−14 has been designated National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week. It honors the people who work in emergency dispatch centers and are the first people the public has contact with during times of crisis when calling 911.
These are the invisible heroes who keep the public safe by answering calls for service and maintaining the nervous system of the city by sending police officers, firefighters, and emergency medical personnel to locations where their help is needed.