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April 15, 2011

911 Services Operators Honored During National Public Safety Telecommunications Week

By David Sims, TMCnet Contributing Editor

You probably don’t have Louisiana’s SulphurDailyNews.com on top of your bookmarks, so you probably missed a great read on the “the unsung heroes of public safety,” 911 operators.

The entire 911 services system can’t function without emergency call takers and dispatchers. That’s why this week, National Public Telecommunications Week, is aptly named in their honor. Earlier this week, the 911 Call Center in Lake Charles, La., invited the public to an open house “so that the public may see what the call takers do.”

As the article notes, “The only time you ever really hear about [911 operators] is when somebody makes a mistake.” All the rest of the time they’re busy saving a life, and getting the proper equipment to the right scene – most definitely a high-stress job.

Being a 911 operator is not like being a phone operator or telemarketer, or others who spend their days on the phone for a living. "This is the type of job that requires a unique individual,” said Robert V. Martin, executive director of the 911 Call Center in Lake Charles. “It's not just answering phones. It's dealing with people in the worst moments of their lives. Nobody calls up here when it's a good day. They only call when everything is falling apart around them.”

For that reason, 911 centers practice extensive pre-employment testing. “We may test 150 people at a time and we'll end up with three or four applicants that are suitable out of that,” Martin said, giving an idea of how rigorous the standards are. “We go through right at a year of training before we feel that they're capable of handling public requests.”

He estimated the costs of training at $110,000 per person in the first year.

As one 911 operator said, “We go through a 12-week Basic Academy training period covering policies and procedures and how to handle different kinds of callers. We train on what information is required to dispatch the correct response. We're trained on equipment such as the computer-aided dispatch where our calls are entered, the phone system and the radio. Then we go on a shift and we're on probation for one year. However, we still train.”

Often a thankless job, being a 911 services operator of emergency dispatcher can take a toll due to the stress that comes along with the position. Erin Collette from Sulphur, La., gave some insight as to what life is like for a 911 call taker.

Collette, who contributes to the 15,000 calls handled per month at the 911 Call Center, is rather advanced at controlling conversations with upset or distressed callers. “Remain calm yourself,” said Collette. “Repeat questions over and over. Call the caller by their name. It usually gets their attention if they’re not paying attention to you.”

On a daily basis, Collette often faces many challenges when it comes to a high-stress call – one being to remain calm herself. However, the most challenging situations she usually has to deal with involve injured children – something that hits close to home for her.  

So, how does she personally handle the stress of the job?

“We vent to each other, our co-workers… It's a family here. It's great to come to work everyday. There's a lot of different personalities and we all come together and really work as a team. I've never seen that anywhere else I've worked.

David Sims is a contributing editor for TMCnet. To read more of David’s articles, please visit his columnist page. He also blogs for TMCnet here.

Edited by Tammy Wolf

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