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Dispatch workers link help with need

This week dispatchers, who help police and firefighters locate those in distress, get some long-due recognition.

By CHASE SQUIRES

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 9, 2001


DADE CITY -- The hours are long and irregular: They sit for hours in a darkened room. The pressure is high and the pay isn't.

But dispatchers, the voices on the other end of the 911 call, say they feel good about the job they do and the people they help.

Sunday marked the start of National Public Safety Telecommunications Week, a week aimed at recognizing the people who dispatch police, fire and ambulance crews and connect people in need with people who can help.

"I go home at the end of the day, and I know we've helped someone," said Dade City communications coordinator Karen Gordon. "I know we were there behind the scenes on every call."

Dick Nelson, president of the Florida chapter of the Association of Public Safety Communications Officers, said dispatchers are an underappreciated lot.

"They're the first person the citizen talks to when they call in, and they're the officers' lifeline when they are in the field," Nelson said. "Thank God they are there."

As part of the national awareness campaign, Dade City commissioners are scheduled to read a proclamation recognizing dispatchers.

Later this month, the Florida chapter of the Association of Public Safety Communications Officers will host its annual conference in St. Petersburg.

A week of recognition is a small gesture, but Gordon said it's appreciated.

"You read about a big crime or a fire, and there's the names of all the police and firefighters who helped, but you never read about the dispatcher," she said. "This is just that pat on the back that we never get."

Gordon said life in the darkened dispatch center, in a small building next to the Police Department, is hectic and filled with pressure, but there are also lighter moments.

Mixed with the medical emergencies, violent crimes and fires are the occasional, less stressful calls, Gordon said.

One caller, an elderly woman who lives alone, sometimes calls just to hear another person's voice, she said. It's not the correct use of the 911 system, but Gordon said dispatchers try to be understanding.

When a call comes in, dispatchers assess the situation and dispatch fire crews or police even as they take the first bits of information. While the crews are on their way, the dispatcher tries to gather more information and pass it along. Computer equipment pulls up any earlier calls to the same location so dispatchers can advise responders if there has been a history of violence or false alarms there.

Gordon said the public safety community shares close bonds, and many in the field have been dispatchers, just as many dispatchers hold second jobs as firefighters or police officers.

Dispatcher's prayer

Dear Lord, It's me and I've come to pray.

It's something I do each and every day.

You see, Lord, I have a second family,

And they are very dear to me.

My second family are police officers and firefighters

Who put their lives on the line, each and every day for strangers.

So, Lord, I ask you to protect them from the dangers.

Please let each and every one of them go home safe,

For they, too, have a second family.

And, Lord, while I am praying,

I want to pray for me.

Help me help others when they call and need my family.

Help me be strong and understand the crying woman whose child has been injured,

Or the man whose house is burning.

Give me the strength to help a suicidal person when they call wanting help.

And, Lord, please help my family to know

That I may not physically be there with them,

But I am with them in heart and soul.

For I, Lord, am their emergency services operator.

-- By John W. Schnittkerand Karen H. Gordon

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