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Jessica Taylor: 911 dispatch is so much more than I thought
jessica brown column
Jessica Taylor.

My ears rang as I heard the word “gun” leave the lips of a distressed 911 caller.

My heart sunk and a sense of panic washed over me as I scrambled to listen to her frantic call, concentrating to hear the important details that could be the difference between life and death.

A hit and run, a black pistol and a terrified woman reaching out to me for help in a span of four minutes felt like hours.

“What did the gun look like? How many suspects were in the vehicle that hit this woman? Are there any injuries? What’s her name? And where is she so I can help her?”

My brain fired off question after question, but then call was over and I had none of the answers. Why? Because at the same time, I was listening to radio interference and monitoring a potential DUI and an active warrant.

But the call wasn’t real and neither was the radio traffic. It was just a four minute simulation, a taste of what Dawson County 911 operators and millions of other first responders face ever minute of every day.

I, and about 40 other civilians, got to see that reality firsthand last Tuesday night during the first session of the Dawson County Citizens Law Enforcement Academy and for many of us, it was a rude awakening.  

 “We have to monitor multiple bits of information, so we have to listen to our responders talking to us on the radio. We have to listen to phone calls coming in. We have to monitor all kinds of different inputs,” said Aleisha Rucker-Wright, Director of the Dawson County 911 Center. “That is what’s called ‘Split Ear,’ and that is probably the absolute hardest thing for people to be able to master in 911.”

Our first point of contact with law enforcement, if we’re not getting pulled over for a speeding ticket, typically begins with a 911 dispatcher who is responsible for getting help out as quickly as possible.

 And being that first point of contact requires an accurate ear to listen to distressing 911 calls, garner the correct information and dispatch the appropriate authorities – whether it be sheriff’s deputies or emergency services.

In order to demonstrate what every dispatcher goes through while on the job, Rucker-Wright asked participants in the law enforcement academy to follow along with the simulation, while practicing the notetaking skill that 911 dispatchers call “split ear.”

Split ear, according to Rucker-Wright, requires dispatchers to juggle multiple calls and commands simultaneously, while taking detailed notes on what is happening.

Imagine sitting in your kitchen with two sheets of paper in front of you. Listen to the television show blaring from your living room while listening to a radio program. For just four minutes, try to write down everything you hear from your TV program as well as what your radio commentators are saying. Or think of all the times you are talking on the phone holding a conversation while trying to overhear your kids playing in the living room while Peppa Pig is talking on the screen.

In one ear I could hear the voice of a scared woman, shaken up from a wreck and fearful that her life was in danger. In the other ear, Rucker-Wright rattled off call after call, never taking a moment to pause because that’s not the reality inside the dispatch center.

If you can keep track of all of those things simultaneously, then you might just have what it takes to be a 911 dispatcher. As for me, the simulation proved to be one of the most stressful experiences I’ve had in recent years. 

I wrote so quickly that my words looked more like a child’s scribbling. Suddenly I heard the word “gun.” Then I heard the officer rattle off a series of numbers that I need to write down that represent a license plate. I went back to listening to the hit and run call, only to find out that I’ve missed the location of the vehicle, the description of the gun, any potential injuries, the caller’s name and their phone number. But, at least I got the starting mileage correct for a minor traffic stop that came through on the radio.

When it was over, I felt incredibly overwhelmed. Even though I had written down everything I thought I had heard, a quick debriefing proved that I missed a lot of vital information that could have potentially cost someone their life, and that could have meant a car full of bad guys getting away from a crime.

“That is pretty much a day on the job,” Rucker-Wright said. “In 911 we kind of equate it to being a lobster. You’re put in hot water and then you don’t realize it’s going because you just kind of acclimate.”

I went into the activity thinking I had a little bit of an advantage. With years of notetaking and reporting under my belt, I thought my ability to process information would give me an edge. It turns out I couldn’t have been more wrong as a quick debriefing afterwards reaffirmed that, had this been a real 911 call, I would have failed. The caller wouldn’t have gotten the help she needed and the bad guys definitely would have gotten away.

“We have times where we have had barricaded hostages and then we’ve had someone having difficulty breathing. It’s not always that way, but there are times when it is really busy,” Rucker-Wright said. “Or we’ll have a structure fire that then turns into we need to life flight somebody and then now next thing you know we have deputies who are on a chase.”

It’s not even just the nature of the calls that come through, but the sheer volume that comes through on a daily basis that astounded me. Not only are these men and women responding to some of the worst days of people’s lives, but they are responding to anywhere between 250 and 300 calls per day.

And on days like our recent snow day, the number of calls can spike up. According to Rucker-Wright, over 240 calls came through in just eight hours when Dawson County was blanketed in snow.

To add to my amazement, the Dawson County 911 Center currently has 10 dispatchers on staff, however each shift is manned by two dispatchers.

Hundreds of calls juggled by shifts of two people – that’s a lot for anyone to comprehend.

Based on my experience with a four-minute simulated phone call, I can understand why the center is always taking applications.

They are responsible for not only taking incoming 911 and non-emergency calls, but also logging that information, asking questions to obtain more information from callers, dispatching deputies and emergency vehicles, looking up warrants and somehow remaining calm and professional through it all.

In just four minutes, I learned that it takes powerful hearts to run the heart of law enforcement.

911 dispatchers are your first point of contact when you wreck your car, when your spouse has a heart attack, when there’s a suspicious person following you and your child at the store. These men and women have a mighty task of getting help to you as soon as possible while remaining calm and collected.

It’s something I could never do under that kind of pressure. I am so thankful that we have men and women who wake up every day, put on that headset and say “Dawson County 911 what’s your emergency?”


Dawson County News reporter Jessica Taylor will continue with a series of pieces on the Citizens Law Enforcement Academy next week.