911 operators listen

Published 12:00 am Saturday, November 30, 2002

Each and every day, 911 emergency dispatch operators in Suffolk respond to calls for help from the public, police, fire and rescue. Handling approximately 230,000 calls a year would not be easy for the world’s best telephone operator. Still, the 18 operators and three supervisors manage to maintain their sanity and perform to peak perfection with a dedication to duty and devotion to serving that’s rivaled by no other in Hampton Roads.

One of Suffolk’s communications officers, Del Shannon, recently found out firsthand just how crucial a &uot;911 operator&uot; is to an emergency situation.

&uot;We had a fire at our home a couple weeks ago and I’m glad they got it repaired in time for us to prepare our Thanksgiving Day dinner,&uot; she said. &uot;I was cooking and had a stove fire and honestly, I forgot how to handle a grease fire. Can you believe that? I sit and respond to calls like that every day I work and yet when it came to my own situation I forgot everything I know.&uot;

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Shannon said her situation was a prime example of what happens to citizens calling for emergency help. As she said, she must remain cool, calm, and collected.

&uot;In my fire, though, I just panicked to the point where my daughter had to dial 911 for help,&uot; she added. &uot;I was trying to put the fire out but doing it all the wrong way. I couldn’t even remember how to use the fire extinguisher. It’s so important for people to try to give us as much information as they can to give us the information to help them, but I truly understand the panic you feel.&uot;

Panic with 18-years service as a 911 communications operator! Shannon said she had truly counted on 911 for help and that she knew it would be there for her just as it is for every citizen who calls in to the center.

What’s kept her with the stressful job for so long? She’s just like every operator in the center, dedicated and devoted to helping others just as she was helped.

Jean Smith, proudly 56-years old with almost 11 years as a Suffolk dispatcher, was named &uot;Dispatcher of the Year&uot; but as the commanding officer of the Communications Division J.J. Marx sees it; every one of his 21 emergency response experts should be honored.

Tracy Deitz is a veteran of 911, and she’s also a wife to James, a captain with Suffolk Fire Department, and mother to one child, six year old Jacob. While most moms find it difficult to stretch themselves between a &uot;normal&uot; job and family, Deitz said the challenge is an attainable goal.

&uot;Sometimes, especially with a young child, we have our own emergencies to attend,&uot; said the dispatcher. &uot;Normally, we (dispatchers) work it out where we cover for each other. We know that we’re always on stand-by if one of us has to be away from the communications division for emergency situations. While our positions must be covered, we try to help each other out.&uot;

Deitz added that she’s seen a lot of stress in her 10 years as a dispatcher, but the most stressful are those involving &uot;officer down&uot; calls or those where a civilian is injured or in a life threatening situation.

&uot;We know we have to work through what we need to do to get help for these people and we must remain calm,&uot; said Deitz. &uot;It’s the only way in which we can be of help to them. We can’t lose it while we’re taking the call, but only later.&uot;

Devotion to handling the calls requires the operators to be on duty eight grueling hours a day. As Deitz noted, they spend more time working with their officers than they do interacting with family.

&uot;That’s because when we’re home, part of that time is spent sleeping,&uot; she explained. &uot;Working with the officers, you develop a rapport with them just like they’re family. You know by their tone of voice when things aren’t right. They don’t even have to say what a problem is sometimes.&uot;

With constant stress nagging at her heels, Deitz said she has no problem with leaving 911 behind, in the communications center where it belongs.

&uot;People outside the realm of work that we do would have a hard time understanding the way in which we talk about it sometimes,&uot; said Deitz. &uot;It really affects you, especially when it’s been something serious like death or injury, but you have to look at it like it’s something that doesn’t really affect your life… be able to handle it all without letting the stress overwhelm you. It’s very difficult, but you have to separate yourself from it. If you can stand the stress, serving 911 is the most rewarding job I could have.&uot;

Still, there are moments when it gets to the operators and Jennifer Craig is currently looking at that stress from a different perspective. She’s several months pregnant and serving as a dispatcher, where normally she serves Suffolk as a police officer. Her husband, Kenny, is also a police officer.

&uot;I’ve worked three years as a police officer and I’m not sure whether I’ll return to street duty,&uot; said Craig. &uot;Communications is stressful, but no more so than working the street. Stress is something you feel constantly on the street but being on the other end of communications gives you an entirely new respect for what dispatchers do. Having worked in communications, I see now that they are under a great deal of stress and they have a lot more going on back there than anyone could ever imagine. I know when I’m on the street, they are my lifeline. I knew that at any moment, they were there to help me.&uot;

Debie Sudduth, and yes she uses only one &uot;b,&uot; has been with the department for a little more than a year.

Prior to that, she worked dispatch in Southampton County and Emporia, for a total of three years. She was the only dispatcher on duty to officers in Southampton, and she knew they depended totally on her expertise in maintaining communications.

&uot;They loved it when I worked,&uot; said Sudduth. &uot;They were like brothers, like my family, and they depended on me. Now, here in Suffolk, I only have more brothers and sisters to work with.&uot;

Sudduth said working at a communications console can get &uot;kinda’ crazy,&uot; especially when there are several incidents taking place at the same time.

&uot;You just deal with it, letting your supervisor know at all times what is going on,&uot; said Sudduth. &uot;That way, they can advise if you need it. There is always a supervisor in the center and that’s reassuring. They don’t stand over us, respecting our ability and judgment calls. This department… honestly, they have the best supervisory staff I’ve ever worked with. They’re your team players, there to help not to criticize, and Sgt. Marx is the greatest.&uot;

Sudduth also noted that it’s stressful when a call comes in, but she agrees that the only way to handle it is to detach herself from the situation.

&uot;It’s hard but having done it for a while, I’ve learned and found that the calmer I am, the better I can handle it,&uot; said Sudduth. &uot;That’s what I try to stress to callers; that they must relay the information to me as calmly as possible even though they may be in a very serious situation. The more information we get from a caller, the better we can help.&uot;

With all the stress of 911, the 21-member team always manages to escape calling for help for their own tensions and headaches. They’ve learned to handle it, each in their own way. Sudduth said once they get the system into their blood, it’s there to stay.

Suffolk Police Department’s Emergency Communications Operators include:

Curtis &uot;Randy&uot; Bailey

Andrea Beale

Tracy Boone

Rosalind Britt-Supervisor

Cathy Click

Jennifer Craig

Debbie Cromer

Tracy Deitz

Nicole Duncan

Latara Frazier

Christina Gardner

Beth Gayle

Elaine Griffin

Reanita Goodwyn

Erin Hernquist

Betty Rogers

Del Shannon-Supervisor

Jean Smith-Dispatcher of the Year

Debie Sudduth

Charlene Thompson-Supervisor

Beverly Wyatt