News : 911 Dispatchers at Metro Police Handle 3.3 Million Calls a Year
Las Vegas, NV, USA, May, 2015 -- It is just after 1 p.m. Monday, and already, 911 telecommunicators at Metro Police’s dispatch center have directed Metro officers to more than 2,000 incidents — car crashes, someone illegally selling water bottles on the Strip, medical emergencies, robberies in progress.
Now, a child has been hit by a car at a bus stop, and the driver has fled.
The tension in the room rises palpably as multiple 911 operators receive calls reporting the crash. The sound of rushed typing dominates the room.
"He hit a 5-year-old! That guy wouldn’t stop for a 5-year-old?" one dispatcher exclaims after a call with a bystander on the scene.
"Oh, good. Someone is following him. Yay!" says another.
Radio lines are busy as officers from different command areas request permission to head to the scene to help. Other dispatchers are on the phone with Metro’s air-support team; they’ll use a helicopter to help chase the suspect.
Officers on the scene update logs in their patrol car computers to share new information with the dispatchers. There are two victims, the dispatchers learn, and one of them is a child, who has died.
The mood changes from urgent to somber.
"A lot of us are parents, so stuff like this really hits close to home," a dispatcher said.
With the help of witnesses, police track down a 20-year-old suspect, who later is arrested on two counts of DUI and one count of failing to stop at the scene of a crash. He and his 15-year-old passenger hid in an apartment complex during the chase, police say.
The arrest wouldn’t have been possible without the work of the men and women on the communications floor. It’s help they offer 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to an average 3.3 million callers a year.
They come from all walks of life and a variety of backgrounds: hospitality, broadcast journalism, tourism, human resources. Most say they are drawn to the field because it’s exciting and can make a difference in the community.
New dispatchers typically share a similar fear about the job: making a mistake that could cost someone his or her life.
A high school diploma or GED is required to be a 911 dispatcher. Applicants also must be able to type 45 words per minute and pass a number of psychological evaluations and background tests. Bad credit, for example, or severe mental illness could disqualify potential applicants.
Once hired, new 911 specialists and dispatchers must complete a 12-week training course, during which they learn Metro’s radio codes and become familiar with various laws. They also learn how to use the dispatch system to take calls and create events, and how to work the dispatch radio to communicate with officers.
Instructors prepare trainees for different types of calls by calling in themselves. Sometimes, the instructors scream, pretending to be a victim in distress. Other times, they pretend to be a child.
It’s impossible to predict the nature of every call, the instructors say, but being exposed to a variety of situations gives trainees a good idea of what to expect.
After the 12-week course, trainees graduate to the communications floor, where they work one-on-one with an instructor, who guides them through calls and radio traffic.
As they gain more confidence and grow more comfortable with the job, the telecommunicators begin to rely on the instructor less until they’re able to handle calls on their own.
Telecommunicators say it’s difficult to separate themselves from their calls when they go home at the end of their shift. The events that are the hardest to get over, they say, are ones involving children.
One dispatcher said one of her most memorable calls involved a woman whose husband was abusing her while her young child cried in the background. The dispatcher said those calls make her feel hopeless because there often is little she can do to stop the situation as it unfolds.
Then there was the ambush of Metro officers Igor Soldo and Alyn Beck last June. It’s a tragedy that "still sticks," many of the dispatchers said.
Although many of the dispatchers have never met the police officers they work with, it’s common for dispatchers to bond with the officers. Some of the dispatchers can identify individual officers by voice.
Metro provides call center employees counseling and grief services to help them cope with negative experiences they may encounter on the job.
To handle the stress of the job, one dispatcher likes to crochet at her desk. During a particularly difficult call, when a man screamed about his stolen car, the woman pulled out a pink ball of yarn and continued to work on a blanket she’d started a few weeks before.
"I’m just going to wait for him to calm down," she said, her crochet needles clicking away.
Sometimes, the woman takes a walk to clear her mind after a hard call, as she did after a person on the other end of the line shot himself while she was on the phone.
For another telecommunicator, having a life outside of work is the best way to cope with work stress. She said she makes it a point to hang out with friends at least once a week.
Most people associate post-traumatic stress disorder with military veterans, police officers and firefighters. But studies show 911 specialists also are at risk.
A 2012 study by Northern Illinois University found that 3.5 percent of the dispatchers surveyed had symptoms severe enough to be diagnosed as PTSD.
Cliff Grady, a behavioral health therapist at the Carson Tahoe Regional Medical Center in Carson City, said PTSD in people who aren’t on the front lines isn’t a new phenomenon.
"They know they’re sending people into life-threatening situations," Grady said. "Cops get to burn their adrenaline, but (telecommunicators) are always on edge, always on hold because they’re waiting on the outcome."
Posted by Veronica Silva Cusi, news correspondent
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About Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department:
The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department is a joint city-county police force for the City of Las Vegas and Clark County, Nevada.
Published: Monday, May 25, 2015