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Anna G. Larson, Published December 16 2012

Local dispatchers, mostly women, a tight-knit group

FARGO – The lights go down at 5:30 p.m. More than two dozen computer screens glow in the dimly lit room while “Home Alone” plays on mute from two wall-mounted TVs.

“I haven’t seen this movie in forever,” says Patty Taylor, a dispatcher and shift supervisor at the Red River Regional Dispatch Center.

Dispatcher Laura Pieri rolls her chair over to Taylor to show her an Alton Brown cookbook. Other dispatchers discuss Christmas gifts. Dave, the center’s well-liked maintenance man, walks in and makes his rounds emptying trash cans and asking each woman about her family.

The hum of chatter continues between calls, and the women talk about everyday things like their children and the best way to clean wood floors.

The mostly female team of dispatchers is a tight-knit group, Taylor says. Of the 32 dispatchers employed by the center, 30 are female, and most are mothers.

“We kind of have to be close because of the nature of the job,” Taylor says.

Working as a dispatcher is a challenging career, says Mary Phillippi, the assistant director. Phillippi was a dispatcher for 22 years before becoming assistant director two years ago.

“These women are extremely dedicated,” she says. “People do give up part of their personal lives because it’s not a 9-to-5 (job). It requires emotional investment. When people call 911, it’s because they’re having the worst day of their life.”

Dispatcher Summer Sandness helped deliver twins by coaching over the phone, and she’s taken a call about a man stuck in an auger.

She even picked up her mother’s 911 call when her mother was having a heart attack.

“I didn’t cry for that,” she says.

One call in her 12 years as a dispatcher has made her cry. A 5- or 6-year-old girl called saying that her dad was killing her mom. Sandness could hear the man beating the woman until the phone disconnected.

Dispatchers field about 250,000 calls a year, and 70,000 are 911 calls, Phillippi says. The calls range from non-emergency calls like someone who needs their car unlocked to medical emergencies such as car accidents and seizures.

When people call and sound hysterical, dispatchers learn their names and use them frequently when talking to them. It helps calm them down, Sandness says.

The dispatchers become soothing, motherly and coach-like on difficult calls. They use phrases like “Don’t give up,” “hang in there,” “it’s OK,” and “we’re going to get you help.”

First-party suicide calls are generally the most nerve-racking, Taylor says.

“It’s hard to keep them calm,” she says. “We stay on the line with them until an officer shows up.”

Calls from children can be the best and the worst. Children often don’t understand the severity of what’s going on, so they can give more details about the situation, Sandness says. Calls from children can also be the worst for that same reason. They may not know that they’re in danger or someone else is in danger, she says.

Each dispatcher has calls that stick with her.

Taylor remembers a teenager calling after she found her mother who died by suicide and a day care provider who found a baby who had died of sudden infant death syndrome.

“The hardest thing for us is to not reciprocate a caller’s emotions,” Sandness says.

Another difficult part of the job is not knowing what happens once the caller hangs up, Taylor says.

“It’s hard not to see what’s going on,” she says. “There’s certain things you just can’t do, and some things are out of our control.”

Dispatchers generally work 10-hour shifts four or five days in a row and then get three or four days off. They go through intense 19-week training once hired and must be CPR, EMD and National Crime Information Center certified. They also have to pass a criminal background investigation and a psychological exam.

Dispatchers are considered the first-first responders, Phillippi said. They are responsible for processing every incoming call and dispatching fire, police and ambulance across Cass and Clay counties.

“I think we’re often forgotten a lot because we’re not out in the public eye,” Sandness said.

In front of each dispatcher sit eight computer screens, a radio and multiple mice, making the ability to multitask an essential quality of an effective dispatcher. Good judgment and the ability to handle constant change and stress are important qualities in a dispatcher, Phillippi says.

In training, women typically excel at those skills, Sandness says.

“We just get it,” she says.

It took Taylor, who’s been a dispatcher for four and a half years, a year or two to be comfortable fielding calls, she says. Sandness says it took her three or four years to become comfortable with the job.

“The first calls you answer, you’re afraid that you’ll kill someone,” she says.

Both women say they became dispatchers because they wanted a job that would be rewarding and dynamic.

“It’s really unpredictable, and I love it,” Sandness says. “Once it’s in your blood, you’re sucked in.”

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Anna G. Larson at (701) 241-5525