In Emergencies, They, Too, Are Part Of Rescue Dispatchers Don't Get The Glory For Translating Frantic Callers' Pleas.

Posted: May 25, 1997

Name one NFL long-snapper, just one.

He's the guy who grabs the ball, starts the field goal play, blocks for the kicker, and then goes home to nurse his bruises. Nowhere do the three points show up in his statistics.

``He can hike the ball 100 times and no one reports that, not even the sports page, but when he messes up, everybody knows his name - that's a 911 operator,'' said Jeff Johnson, operations supervisor for Burlington County Central Communications in Westampton.

Johnson, 40, isn't bitter when he makes his case. If he didn't love it, he would have quit long before he racked up 20 years on the job. As a supervisor, he doesn't have to deal with the abuse and stress of taking calls anymore, but he still straps on the headset some days.

So do many others - Johnson says dispatcher job openings fill quickly.

``It's never difficult. Recently, we've been contacted by retired police officers, or active officers working in smaller communities that can't afford to pay very well. And then there is always the volunteer EMTs and volunteer firefighters,'' he said. In short, they are people who live in the county, have some rescue experience, and want to help people at their direst point of need. Dispatchers in the three-county area make $20,000 to $35,000 a year.

Dispatchers can hear the screams, but can't touch the victim. In seconds, they have to read the caller's emotional state and barter an instant trust. At once counselor and detective, they pry lifesaving details from the hysterical, and walk them through the critical stages until the cavalry gets there, sirens blaring.

Juggling victims, police and rescue units, and co-workers, they snap the ball.

Most of the time, they don't even get to see the kick land.

``We don't see it; we hear it,'' Johnson said. ``A police officer or a rescue worker sees the finished product, and although it's ugly, they see it. Sometimes we never see the end of it.''

* A man called Camden County 911 to check in about his stolen car one recent Thursday. The car had been stolen the previous week, and the man just wanted to see if police had found it. It couldn't have been more routine. Dispatcher John Busch, 31, referred the caller to the police and hung up.

The next call he took:

``My baby! She's not breathing!'' a woman screamed, hyperventilating.

Busch typed in the order for an ambulance and tried to get the woman to control herself. He asked for details on the baby's condition. She screamed again.

``I said she's not breathing! Send an ambulance now!''

Callers often assume the dispatcher can't call an ambulance while he or she is on the phone, so Busch reassured her that one was on the way. Then he grabbed hold of the conversation and kept it. He asked whether the baby was shaking, or frothing at the mouth, or turning colors. Had the baby had a fever lately?

She answered in phrases broken by tears and screams, then began to calm a bit. Another woman got on the phone. By this time, Busch knew the baby was breathing.

``The indicator was the frothing at the mouth,'' he explained later. ``If she wasn't drawing air, she'd be turning blue.'' It was a seizure, brought on by a high fever, he said.

The baby call is the worst of them, many dispatchers agreed. With Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, it's often too late. ``The hardest thing is when you hear the exasperation, the hysteria, and you can't do anything,'' said Camden County dispatcher Susan Hickman, 42.

The baby call also can be the best of them. The delivery of a healthy baby is the first story that comes to mind, the story that survives in the office over years and thousands of calls.

``Most of the time, the people are so upset. I've talked people through CPR, but unfortunately, with CPR, you don't get too many saves,'' said Marie Sowers, 37, a dispatcher for the Gloucester County Communications Center in Clayton. ``But when I got to deliver that baby. . . .'' She paused, and smiled.

``I went through four or five people on the phone. The husband, the son, everybody in the room.''

Sowers' dispatcher teammates rallied around and crossed their fingers during the long call. The baby was fine.

* As unpredictable as the job is, there are constants. From small rooms crammed with computer terminals and phones, the dispatchers have a unique vista of their counties and their communities.

The single greatest predicting factor is the weather. On a daily basis, it's the rain or snow that tells dispatchers what to expect. ``When you hear that first drop of rain, and you can just sit and count until the accidents start,'' noted John Quinn, 26, Camden County dispatcher.

The seasons have their own quirks. As the mercury creeps up in the summer, so do the fights, the noise complaints, the drunks, the late-night fatal accidents.

One of the few calls that stay steady year-round is ``domestics.''

Like clockwork, every day there will be husbands beating wives, sons beating mothers, mothers beating daughters, and any other combination you can fathom. ``It's tough when you get that little kid calling about his dad beating his mom,'' Quinn said.

* Dispatchers work 12-hour shifts, many rotating from the day shift to the night shift week by week. There's the 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., the 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., and the ``power shift'' - during the heaviest calling period - from 1 p.m. to 1 a.m.

The county dispatchers always work in teams, usually between four and seven people who live in different parts of the county, making their collective knowledge of the local landscape invaluable. Between them, they can pinpoint backwoods bars; recognize when a caller identifies the wrong town; and string together landmarks to make the response that much quicker.

They get close, and they joke around. They have to. At the Gloucester County Communications Center recently, a dispatcher got up and bellowed, with a wide smile, ``So what was our final death count last weekend? Five?''

Within the cocoon of the office, little is out of line in the pursuit of humor. ``If you just came in for a visit, and saw the behind-the-radio, behind-the-phones response of operators, you would probably think some of them are morbid,'' said Burlington County's Johnson. ``You laugh because you don't feel proper crying.''

Tapes of the funniest and craziest calls are saved for later laughs, and the daily barrage of emergencies is shrugged off. Each dispatcher has a way of dealing with it. Still, it has an effect over the long term, Johnson said:

``Seeing all the sad things in the community makes you more protective of your own.''

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