Sheriff's dispatchers face danger, stress

Monday, December 15, 2003

The sheriff's emergency dispatchers have been criticized in the media and at quorum court meetings for "poor training" or mistakes, and some people questioned their performance as the county was setting up a new 911 central dispatch center.

Some criticism is valid, but much of it is based on misunderstandings.

In fact, the sheriff's dispatchers are well trained, as required by state law. The training includes several levels of dispatching techniques and complicated crime information classes related to handling of computer procedures that leave little ----or no ----room for error.

The dispatchers undergo intense three-day mandatory training by state experts at the Arkansas Crime Information Center (ACIC) in Little Rock.

Even before they go to advanced training, which consists of full days of arduous, classroom instruction and a difficult test at the end, they usually work weeks or a few months under experienced dispatchers at the sheriff's office before they can even qualify for their advanced certification.

In order to attend the Level II class in Little Rock, they must have a working knowledge of how the ACIC and National (NCIC) system operates; how the systems are linked to the worldwide Interpol system and other agencies, or they would be virtually lost in the rapid-fire advanced course at ACIC.

There is a lot more to the job than answering a 911 call, analyzing the nature of the emergency, and dispatching the appropriate agency.

Good dispatching takes more than good training. It also requires considerable talent, a quick mind, the ability to communicate under pressure ---- and a knack for doing three or four things at once while someone's life could be at stake.

In some cases, despite any and all training, there are dispatchers who are not as talented or as capable as the public and police would like.

For example, in a hypothetical pool of a dozen dispatchers, only five or six of them may be considered good or excellent. Many people in law enforcement say that is about as good as it can get in Carroll County ---- until the quorum court can find funding for the stalled central dispatch center.

With the pay so low and the stress so high, any law enforcement agency has to hire potential dispatchers who are often right off the street, with no dispatching experience at all. And when they get into the thick of multiple emergency situations, an almost daily occurrence at times, those without the talent and personal composure under fire often want to quit and hit the road as soon as they can.

Sheriff's dispatch Supervisor Beth Reely, who has trained many dispatchers and has years of experience, said that her staff of 13 jailer-dispatchers are the best she can get at the wages she can offer, and agrees that not all of them are, nor may never be, what could be considered excellent dispatchers.

"The nature of the job is far more complicated than most people realize. Not only do dispatchers have to be talented and good at multiple tasks at the same time, and require the skils to be near-perfect at all times, but they have to be the kind of person who can do it all and not lose their cool. They always have to be polite to the public and the officers on the road, but they cannot get upset when someone calls in, who is in a panic or near hysterical ---- they have to be able to calm the person and get the necessary information. And they take a lot of abuse and can't return it. Sometimes a caller will give an incomplete report and hang up, and the dispatcher will transmit what little information he or she has to an officer, and the officer might get frustrated because he doesn't get as much information as he wants, and that frustrates the dispatchers on many levels," Reely said.

One dispatcher said, "It's an almost never-ending source of frustration, especially because we feel responsible for the officers' and public's safety, and all the responsibility builds up and the criticism comes right back at us ---- and rightfully so, in a lot of cases. When you're doing five different things at once, you're going to make mistakes sometimes, and we do ---- that's a fact."

Most dispatchers say their critics ---- who include deputies and police officers ---- should try dispatching themselves for a shift or two.

"I think that would give them a whole new outlook on our situation," another experienced dispatcher said.

Sgt. Reely agreed with the hypothetical situation where out of a dozen trained dispatchers, only half or less can become very good dispatchers.

"It really does take a special person with talent beyond the training. Often, it's a skill ---- actually, a lot of skills ---- that some people can't master."

Reely and Sheriff Chuck Medford and others in the field are fully aware that their dispatchers make mistakes, too often. Sometimes they're still in training, and sometimes they're well-trained but stressed out, and sometimes the events stack up against them and they make mistakes that sometimes make the news.

One source in a city police agency said, "To be truthful they (the sheriff's office) sometimes have to keep a few marginal dispatchers because the real good ones are hard to find and hard to keep. We hope for the best and try to help them improve their skills, but it's not possible to have a really good dispatcher at the radio at all times. Like cops, they're not paid well enough. Some of the younger ones stay only because they hope to be a police officer or deputy some day. The skills of a dispatcher and the skills of a cop are a lot different. Every cop likes a good dispatcher, because our lives can depend on their abilities, but it is not going to be the way we want it to be 24 hours a day and seven days a week," the source said.

Lawmen and supervisors agree that there are dispatchers who just can't handle the job in all situations, and they sometimes fail to get crucial information, or lose track of an officer on a stop. This is a circumstance that is without remedy at this time, especially with the current county budget crisis and suspension of the new dispatch center.

The new 911 central dispatch center upstairs has been temporarily put on hold, and even though there's $350,000 in new state-of-the-art communications equipment, much of it sitting unused one floor above the sheriff's dispatch office, gathering dust. It's untouchable for now, and shut down, with a minimal budget for 2004.

When Public Safety Communications Center (PSCC) Manager Candy Bawcom, a veteran law enforcement officer, began recruiting for dispatchers for the new county-wide central dispatch center, she had the luxury of seeking out the best dispatchers she could find. She went by dispatchers' reputation and skills, and tried to recruit only the cream of the crop, but she didn't have to find 12 excellent dispatchers ---- far less ---- and they didn't have to be jailers.

Now, Bawcom is as frustrated as many of those involved in 911 operations, after many months of trying to solve the problems by carefully choosing PSCC dispatchers and spearheading a drive for new communications towers for a county-wide frequency.

Many dispatchers and the sheriff himself have said that moving dispatch out of the sheriff's office would relieve a lot of the pressure, but there are internal disputes over jail money being used to finance part of the new PSCC, which must be resolved before PSCC is put on line.

Since the PSCC's unexpected shutdown, the dispatch "problems" remain back on the shoulders of the sheriff's dispatchers.

In the sheriff's office, the jail is one of the biggest headaches and the most personally perilous part of the job. The state filed suit several years ago against the county and the jail, saying it was dangerous and illegal to make dispatchers work as jailers. The state put its lawsuit on hold when the county began the process of building the new jail and establishing county-wide central dispatch.

A little-known part of dispatching that adds a lot of stress is that the ACIC, NCIC and computer techniques that require almost perfect operation at all times.

  • A day in the life of a sheriff's dispatcher can be eight hours of constant mundane chores, punctuated by moments of terror and confusion. There is no training for the moments when adrenaline pumps though the body like a broken water main, and dispatchers end up literally shaking when it's over.

    At least one dispatcher admitted he hated coming to work on a weekend night, experiencing several hours of dread over what might happen when he got to the jail.

    Besides the hostility in the jail, the belligerence and resistance from the prisoners, and the fact that personal injury is a possibility, he and others drag themselves in because they know that if they don't, their colleagues will have to suffer.

    Some love the excitement; some don't.

    For example, dispatchers receive ACIC or NCIC computer messages called "hit confirmations." They are urgent messages from another police agency in Arkansas or anywhere in the U.S., which originate with an officer on a traffic stop with a wanted person out of Carroll County or one of its cities, and before an arrest can be made, the local dispatcher has to wheel around to a file cabinet, look up the original warrant, make sure it's still active, and then fill out a full-screen, complicated confirmation form that has to have all the information in the perfect place, spelled perfectly, and coded correctly or it's bounced back by the ACIC system. A dispatcher must do this within exactly 10 minutes or less, no matter what else is happening on the radio or on the phones or anywhere else. The only thing that can make a dispatcher hesitate on a hit confirmation is if an officer's safety is at stake, or there is a major public safety problem happening at the same time. If they are lucky, there may be two dispatchers on hand, one to do the hit confirmation and the other to hold down the fort on the radio and the phones.

    Maybe the jailer can help if there's only one dispatcher, but often the jailer is busy with a booking or several prisoners, or doing a jail check in the back, which is also required at regular intervals by law.

    The dispatcher at the other end of the hit process is also nervous, because it is his or her officer that is on the traffic stop with someone who may be wanted for anything from murder to assault on a police officer.

    If the "hit" response doesn't come within 10 minutes, the other agency will fire off a second hit confirmation, which automatically notifies ACIC that there was no response to the first request, and the tension and legalities begin to get thick. ACIC sends an instant message to Carroll County wanting to know why the hit hasn't been confirmed yet.

    Maybe the warrant was misfiled; it has to be the original warrant, so maybe a Green Forest or Berryville officer has to break away and go to the city's warrant file to confirm it.

    And God help the dispatcher who confirms an invalid warrant. That will lead to a false arrest, and that is a crime and a lawsuit waiting to happen. Or if the warrant isn't where it can be found immediately, the suspect may be let go, no matter what the crime. If the warrant is misfiled, it is also the dispatcher's fault. Only Level II dispatchers are allowed to enter warrants and stolen property information, because accuracy is so important.

    Meanwhile, on a busy night, the phones are ringing, two or three cops want license numbers run NOW, and ---- this has happened many times ---- a fire or bad wreck occur at almost the same time.

    If all hell is breaking loose, and the second hit confirmation hasn't been answered, ACIC issues an official warning, and enough of those can lead to loss of ACIC privileges, a disastrous situation for any agency, because warrant, license, stolen items, criminal histories, driving records and a host of other vital information will be unavailable to local police officers. While it is extreme, it can and does happen.

    ACIC considers any breach of standards and operations to be dire, and in many cases criminal. An unethical, inept or unauthorized use of their computer system is a felony, charged to the dispatcher.

    While that may seem beside the point of why the job is so difficult, it illustrates the fact that everything a dispatcher does is under intense scrutiny, easily traceable right down to the second, and the burden of responsibility always finds its way back to the dispatcher and the supervisor.

  • The sheriff's dispatch office is approximately the size of a small guest bedroom, and it is crammed full of separate radios for police, fire, and Arkansas State Police, computers, warrant files, code books, manuals as thick as encyclopedias, dozens of lists and files of emergency phone numbers, two 911 phone consoles, a paging system box for alerting ambulances and a half-dozen volunteer fire departments, two sets of regular phones with multiple lines, a storm and tornado warning frequency, walls full of maps and on-call police and deputy schedules, Rolodex files packed with important numbers, a bulletin board holding binders of jail, dispatch and sheriff's procedures, important messages and printouts of criminal information, and file cabinets, first-aid kits, and page after page of instructions and orders that would take a month to read.

    Less than five feet away is the booking area, which is separated by an open door and little else.

    Usually, things go OK, but more often, it gets loud in there, because nobody likes to go to jail. Too often, a suspect decides to fight. Female jailers have been known to call for help on the radio, and run to help the male jailer, even though her first priority is the radio and the phone.

    Sometimes, a dispatcher will radio, "All units, we'll be off station for a minute, we have a problem."

    Deputies and Berryville police are very good about rushing in to help when they hear that urgent transmission.

    There are too many suspects who choose to resist, either in the booking area or the dressing room, when they realize they're really going to jail and must disrobe, be searched and put on jail uniforms.

    The situation can turn violent quickly, and a jailer risks exposure to hepatitis or the AIDs virus if a prisoner is cut. Sometimes prisoners cut themselves in their cells, and spread the blood all over the place on purpose.

    When an extremely violent individual loses control, and may be under the influence of methamphetamine or other drugs, it can take two jailers, a couple of Berryville cops and deputies to bring the situation under control for the jailer, who is armed with nothing but his wits, experience and a can of pepper spray.

    When an outburst like that occurs and lasts for 10 or 15 minutes, it's nearly impossible for a dispatcher to even hear the radio, and the officer on the other end can barely hear the dispatcher because of all the background noise.

    Some officers have worked as jailers and dispatchers, and are more understanding, but others seem to be oblivious, or may not care, and are plainly unsupportive or openly critical of dispatchers.

    Every day on every shift, with few brief respites, the phones ring incessantly, with everyday calls, emergency calls, people who want questions answered, messages for the investigators or off-duty deputies ---- every call for the entire office goes through dispatch first, even calls for secretaries.

    Two or three lines can be ringing at once, and one dispatcher is trying to take the calls, take messages, answer an officer's radio request for a license or warrant check, and then someone wants a cop right away because there's a possum under their house.

    Dispatcher "Jane" is usually handling all this, because Dispatcher "Joe" is either attending to prisoner needs or complaints, trying to do the paperwork to book a prisoner in or release one trying to bond out. A jail administrator or seasoned dispatcher might be entering warrants, double-checking paperwork that has to meet court standards, trying to figure out who can be booked out of an illegally overcrowded jail full of 33 inmates in a facility designed for about half that many, and some prisoners want attention now because they "have a right" for this or that. Twice a week it's shower day, and three times a day one jailer has to feed all the prisoners with the help of jail trustys. He enters the cell block full of felons several times during the day, by himself, with no protection, with the keys to the block on his belt. On several occasions prisoners have taken the opportunity to overpower the jailer, take his keys and run for the front door. On one occasion a few years ago, the now-retired, petite Sgt. Helen Bussey, was knocked to the ground by escaping felons, who made it outside but were later captured.

    If it's Monday, a herd of inmates need to be taken to court, which could be in Berryville or Eureka Springs. Before that, medications have to be distributed and logged and accounted for, and many claim tooth aches so they can get pain pills, but the jail staff is wise to that ploy and carefully assesses the need for a doctor or dentist. Again, it is required by law.

    That's a fairly routine day.

    Then there are the nightmare shifts.

  • Usually, the hot shifts (not the busiest but often the most stressful) are 4 p.m. to midnight or midnight to 8 a.m.

    Sometimes there's just a male and a female, working as partners, and lately, on nights and weekends, they might have enough staff to put a shift sergeant on duty. Hopefully, no one calls in sick.

    A good female dispatcher on a night shift can be a gem at the radio and the 911 console, while her partner books in the prisoners, who are sometimes backed up three or four deep in holding areas. The jailer helps when the radio and the phones get "ballistic," which can occur at any time. "Ballistic" can be three or more officers on traffic stops involving multiple people in Green Forest and Berryville at the same time; a 911 call for a domestic disturbance 20 or 30 minutes away in the farthest southern or western area of the county; a state trooper on a possibly dangerous traffic stop, all alone in the middle of the night ---- and then a deputy tries to stop a car, and, as they say, "the chase is on."

    Local state troopers and the city police are always as helpful as they can be, but they have their own problems and duties to worry about. Bad blood between cops and other cops, or cops and jailer-dispatchers, are always forgotten in emergencies ---- always ---- that can wait for later.

    There are a handful of dispatchers who are amazing to watch:

    They can keep track of a deputy running four or five names for warrants and driver information, while answering phones with the other hand, and asking other cops to stand by a second while they wait for computer returns.

    This dispatcher has enough experience and dexterity to tone out a fire department at the same time, working two radios at once. All the while, a calm voice and a steady demeanor might give all concerned a feeling of confidence ---- both the public and the cops on the street.

    Usually, a good cop knows when to wait a minute with his traffic, while the dispatcher sends an ambulance to a wreck with possible injuries, and sends a computer message to Troop L headquarters in Springdale because the accident is on a state highway.

    The dispatcher switches quickly to another window on the computer screen, where he or she can enter some important numbers that appear on a felon's driver's license during a traffic check.

    The dispatcher has told the Berryville or Green Forest officer that the driver "has numbers," and that officer wants to know what those numbers mean, for very good reasons.

    The dispatcher enters the FBI or state SID numbers (again, the computer requires perfect keystrokes. The date of birth can't be entered as "12-16-59." It has to be entered as 1959/12/16, for example, or the computer kicks it back, wasting precious moments.) The return, which takes only a few seconds, prompts the radio call telling the cop out there in the dark by himself that there are "officer safety issues," meaning the officer has stopped a person with a history of violence or resisting arrest, or perhaps a conviction for assault on a police officer, or worse.

    Carroll 8 ( a sheriff's deputy) is near the Berryville officer and he knows what "numbers" mean, so he radios that he is already on his way to back up the city officer.

    Now, the Green Forest officer is told to go ahead with his traffic, and he's reading off four or five names and birth dates ---- perhaps the people are Hispanic, and have only rudimentary i.d. This will take some time.

    Even though this is all taking place in a period of about three or four minutes, everybody's getting nervous.

    The Green Forest officer is waiting patiently with five strangers, and one of them is drunk and beginning to get belligerent.

    This is tense, but common on a weekend, and one very good dispatcher can handle it.

    The unfortunate reality of the current situation in Carroll County is that the dispatcher might be on only his second or third day alone at the radio, after all that special training, and though his intentions are good and he's as smart as the next guy, he just may not have the "right stuff" to handle all this without yelling for help, making mistakes, and disappointing or even scaring the officers on duty.

    In a worst case scenario, a dispatcher may give bad directions to an ambulance crew or a cop on a hot call, out of natural human confusion and inexperience.

    There is no substitute for good training, talent and experience, say the experts in every career field.

    In the dispatch room in the current Carroll County situation, having one out of three of those qualities is acceptable; two are pretty good, and three of the skills held by one individual are rare (training, experience and talent).

    Some of the police and deputies on the road are guilty of the same human traits.

    There are deputies and city police officers who don't even know all the exact locations of county roads and addresses on some of their own city streets.

    Dispatchers who aren't quite good enough can't be pulled off the radio for more training, because there are not enough people to cover. The constant turnover due to stress and low pay are like an insurance policy that keeps less-than-perfect people on the payroll, because the jobs have to be filled, every hour of every day.

    It is not the unqualified or marginal dispatcher that is at fault ---- it is the system that keeps them in the cycle. It is difficult to get them out of the cycle, because they are usually good people who try very hard, and every effort is made to improve their skills where possible, according to Sgt. Reely and other supervisors, dispatchers and Sheriff Medford.

    Luckily, there are talented dispatchers on many shifts, and most of the jailers are very good at their jobs, but they don't make the newspapers for doing a good job.

    Even good dispatchers quit, or take on extra off-duty jobs to make enough money to support their families, like many cops have to do.

    A common occurrence is a fair example, one that could cause anyone to tear his hair out. One night, there's a serious car accident and a fire a few minutes later.

    Then, the computer beeps as the weather service puts out a tornado warning for Carroll County, and the sirens in Green Forest and Berryville are activated, wailing their warnings for miles.

    Suddenly, the 911 calls and the regular 423- numbers are lighting up like a Christmas tree, because a dozen members of the public want to know one thing. What are the sirens for?

    Many of the dispatchers love their jobs. They love the excitement and the service to the community, and they take a lot of grief from the public and from the officers they try so hard to please.

    Plus, there are scores of regular folks who like to listen to their police radio scanners as a hobby, and they are often vocal critics in the coffee shops and in conversations with their friends, even though they don't have a clue what is going on behind the scenes.

  • In Eureka Springs, there is a separate 911 system, as there has been since 1989.

    Things are different there. For one thing, there is no jail, just a couple of holding cells. There is much less turnover in Eureka Springs, because the conditions are better.

    Therefore, the dispatchers are more relaxed, experienced, and able to do their jobs without major distractions such as battles at the booking desk.

    The new police station is bright, spacious and well-designed, and the atmosphere is as pleasant as a police department can be. The dispatcher has only Eureka officers and Eureka ambulances and western district fire departments to worry about, which often is quite enough, especially in the tourist season.

    Eureka dispatchers even have time to be polite to the person complaining about a dog that tore up his garden two days ago. They also have an animal control officer, which the county had to abandon because of budget problems among other things.

    Eureka Springs is completely separate from county 911, and has had 911 operations for many years, and even medical and fire emergencies are a little easier to deal with because of a paid, seasoned paramedic and medical staff on the ambulances. The staff is not necessarily better trained than east side personnel, but they've been doing it longer than the county, under better conditions.

    The calls can get just as maddening and dangerous over there, too, but the main success appears to be because of better conditions, which leads to retention of good people, both in dispatch and on the streets, and thus more experience and better performance.

    While stress can get high in Eureka Springs, those dispatchers who have worked in both places say the stress is much higher at the county than in Eureka.

  • While dispatchers are such an important part of the safety system for Carroll County, conditions will apparently remain the same in 2004.

    The contributors to this story say the county government is running a system that is perilously close to one bad mistake by one well-meaning dispatcher, which could bring consequences that would be regrettable if not tragic.

    "So far, we've been very fortunate with the sheriff's dispatch," a source said, "but it's almost beyond the band-aid stage without serious efforts by our elected officials. I believe in this county and I believe in our quorum court, but they've got to believe in and understand the dispatch problem, without simply using 'poor training' as an excuse. It is much more than that, and it is a nationwide problem, not just Carroll County. Until the central dispatch system is brought to life, some of us are afraid about what could happen."

    But above all, the sheriff's dispatchers continue to do their best, and they don't deserve the bad knocks they're taking."

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