Dispatchers to the rescue

They’re hung up on, yelled at and sometimes denied the very information they need to do their jobs.

But for the county’s emergency-911 dispatchers, it’s not about getting a “thank you,” from callers whose lives were saved.

“People aren’t calling up to say, ‘Merry Christmas,’” Clarence Sales, a first-year dispatcher, said. “But you get gratification when you get police over there or put out a fire. And that doesn’t have to be verified with words.”

Sales, one of the county’s four recently-hired dispatchers, said though at first glance the job might seem little more than fielding phone calls, such is not the case.

“It is in no way an easy job,” he said.

Being a dispatcher entails monitoring five screens, keeping frantic people calm and acting as liaison to first-responders when a fraction of a second can be the difference between late — and too late.

And because they don’t do it for the praise or the money — the job begins at an annual salary of roughly $30,000 — the common denominator among the county’s emergency-911 dispatchers is their shared pride in knowing they might have helped someone.

But oftentimes, they don’t know how the story ends.

“We only know the beginning of the call,” said Dispatch Supervisor Kathleen Langtad, whose calls have run the gamut from a cat stuck in a tree, to guiding a childbirth, over the past 24 years.

“But it can be very rewarding to have an emergency situation and be able to help the caller,” she said.

Having begun his job in November, Sales has already adopted an individual approach to taking calls: The Golden Rule.

“I try to think of being in their shoes,” Sales said, noting, “but there is nothing easy about this job.”

Kyle Okamura, a dispatcher who was a Kaua‘i police officer for 18 years, said he uses a technique that helps both the caller and those going out to the call.

“Being a dispatcher is like being a doorway of a hotel, where the doorman is the first impression,” Okamura said. “If the doorman is grouchy, (the guest is) going to be the same way.”

Keeping in mind that officers have to respond physically to the caller, Okamura said he keeps a pleasant demeanor on the phone and is sure to get police up to speed on the details while they are enroute.

But getting the public up to speed on how to place emergency-911 calls could help, too, Capt. Ale Quibilan said.

That includes knowing the house numbers of an address, staying on the phone until the dispatcher has received all the information and remaining calm.

It also includes avoiding 911 where applicable and relying on the general police number for administrative calls, police reports and traffic accidents in which no one was harmed, he said.

The combination of better-informed residents and a new power mapping system — slated to roll out in late summer — should further smooth out any kinks in the county’s emergency response system, Langtad said.

The e-911 service will allow dispatchers to know the physical address associated with a wireless phone number.

However, callers should always be prepared to answer basic questions, including the location of the emergency, regardless of what sort of phone they are using.

“We will always have to verify the address,” Langtad said. “Someone calling from Kalaheo could be calling us about their mom in Wailua.”


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