Life on the line: Meet a voice of 911

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For National Emergency Medical Services (EMS) week (May 21 – 27), we’re honoring the local heroes that make up our EMS/Medic One system in King County. Each day, we’ll be sharing a unique perspective on saving lives from the people doing this work every day.

Today, the spotlight is on Emergency Medical Dispatch. Dispatchers are the first point of contact with the public, asking medically-based questions to determine the appropriate level of care to be sent, providing instructions and even guiding callers through providing life-saving steps, such as CPR and using a defibrillator, until the Medic One/EMS providers arrive.

To understand this work better, we sat down with Jessica Cannon, dispatcher at the North East King County Regional Public Safety Communication Agency, known as NORCOM.  Jessica has been a dispatcher for 11 years, starting in Bellingham and later moving to NORCOM, where she was recently recognized for her exemplary work during an especially difficult and complex call.

What led you to becoming a dispatcher? 

I actually had no idea this field even existed before I applied – it seems people who are naturally drawn to dispatch come from police or fire department families, and I did not.  I worked in a restaurant after graduating college and was looking for something more.

My coworker suggested I apply at Whatcom County as a dispatcher – her husband worked there and she thought I would be a good candidate. And she was right – I fell in love with the job before I was even out of training.

Give us an example of a “day in the life of a NORCOM dispatcher” – what does it entail?

Every morning when I get to work, I have the option of working as a call receiver, police dispatcher or fire/EMS dispatcher. Each position has a unique skill set and each has their own difficulties. Some days dispatch is quiet – nobody calls, no field units need anything, and the world seems to be at peace. (For the record, we don’t like it when it’s quiet around here. It’s kind of creepy.)

However, most days we are a bustling busy hive of activity. We make outgoing calls to utility companies, alarm companies, other police and fire departments, security companies, Metro, taxi’s and tow companies. We take incoming calls from a wide range of people looking for assistance of all kinds. We have at least one radio, are taking emergency calls, fielding requests and questions from supervisors of all types, running names, confirming warrants, hollering to our coworkers to ask for clarification on some detail, talking to private ambulance companies, giving CPR instructions and listening for any blip of radio traffic that sounds like an officer or firefighter is in distress. Most of the time, we are doing all of this at the same time. Needless to say, coffee is in our blood.

What sort of training do you receive?

Training begins with an in-house, two-month academy that teaches you the basics of dispatch. There are multiple tests to pass and certifications to achieve while you’re in the class. Eventually you train one-on-one with a trainer on the floor and extensively for every skill set (call receiving, police dispatch and fire/EMS).

This training comes only after passing a basic skills test, multiple oral boards, a lie detector test, an extensive background check, a psychological review and a split ear test. (Can you hear two things at once?  This test will tell you.) The hiring process to become a dispatcher takes someone who is dedicated to the idea of it.

The entire process – from the first interview to being fully released – is a grueling year and a half. It’s hard, it’s stressful and your schedule constantly changes around the clock.  However, when you are done, it’s the best feeling of accomplishment with many rewards, including a new work family.

We are required to take continuing education to learn about trends and emerging medical standards and trends, receive feedback on our work performance, and can take advanced-level dispatch training so we can keep our skills sharp and improve.

This seems like a stressful job – how do you handle the stress level, both of the caller and your own?  

Both NORCOM and the county offer training opportunities that focus on mental health and stress management.  Along with many other dispatch centers in the area, NORCOM has a new trainee mentor program, and offers a peer support program for dispatchers who are having a tough time, usually due to a difficult call. A Bellevue officer teaches a three-hour course on stress management andkeeping yourself mentally healthy, and people are constantly checking in with each other.

I handle my stress by making a point to not take work home with me. I check it at the door when I leave – I allow myself to go home to my family and live a normal life without thinking about the things I heard while working. Sometimes these things are waiting for me when I return the next day, and I deal with them on my own terms.

As far as not losing my cool with callers, you sometimes have to repeat the mantra “this is their problem not mine” over and over. Realizing that your caller is not having a good day and this issue is not about me helps me to stay calm when a caller is verbal, upset, not listening to me or otherwise just downright rude.

What is new in your field/your work or has recently changed? How does that impact you?

In the last 11 years, the world of 911 and dispatch has evolved tremendously.  We are constantly upgrading our programs to better serve the public, which requires extra training.  We are getting new and better mapping tools which help us to get a location even quicker than before.

However, the biggest change that we are facing actually hasn’t happened yet in our center. Texting 911 is the newest feature 911 has been offering to the public (where applicable). The idea of getting texts instead of a voice call is scary to some dispatchers – it’s a whole new world of information that we could receive, eventually evolving into pictures and video.  We are used to using our ears as our primary tool.  We aren’t accustomed to seeing the things that are being reported and that makes some nervous that they won’t be able to do their job as effectively.

What is most challenging about your work?

This is a demanding job. Some days can be really hard on the soul.

What’s the wildest call you ever had? 

I’ve had a few that make me chuckle: The caller who, after being stung by bees multiple times, wanted the ambulance for the now-dying bees, not herself; a woman who had several “ninja rodents” on her car while she was in it (in her state of panic she couldn’t think of the name for “raccoon”); the good Samaritan who, in an effort to keep the concussed bicyclist from leaving before aid arrived, punched him in the face to keep him still, resulting in needing to start a police response.

Our EMS system relies heavily upon public interaction and participation.  What can the public do to help?   

First and foremost, please know your address; we cannot send you help until you tell us where to send it.  Giving details about the patient does not help us get there – your address does.

Also, if you have ever called 9-1-1 and thought to yourself “man she was pushy” or “she didn’t even let me explain (fill in the blank)”…you are probably right. We follow a very specific line of questioning to ensure your safety as well as the safety of our responders. We don’t usually need to know the “why” behind an emergency – we just know you are having a problem right now that needs to be resolved.

While customer service is what we do, we can be pushy – because we are here to help you/ potentially save your life, we are going to do what is necessary to get the information needed to help us do exactly that.

What makes you proud to be part of the King County EMS system?  

I get to save lives — I ACTUALLY get to save lives.  There are people who are walking around and enjoying life today because I, or one of my partners, was there to answer their calls on the worst day of their lives. We’ve given lifesaving CPR instructions for patients ranging from newborns to over 100 years old. We’ve saved stroke patients from irreparable damage by immediately putting the stroke protocol into motion when on the phone. We’ve given countless instructions for terrible scenarios that you can’t even imagine to sustain life until the first responder can get there. That’s a pretty huge feeling for someone to walk away from work with every day. I can’t imagine having any other career choice that makes me feel like I’m making a difference the way that I do.

I recently got to meet the young patient, his friend who called 911, and their parents from the call for which I received an EMS award last year. This young man was involved in a serious fall down the face of a mountain and survived with no lasting injuries. If it didn’t hit home to me before, it certainly did when I talked to his parents. Their appreciation for what I do was enormous – the room could barely contain it. It was in that moment that I was convinced I was put in this position as a 911 dispatcher for a reason, and I love it.

Originally posted on May 22, 2017.

4 thoughts on “Life on the line: Meet a voice of 911

  1. I have had to call 911 when my husband couldn’t breathe, twice. He’s alive because of the 911 system and first responders. Thank you.

  2. I really want to become a 911 Call Receiver. How can I learn more? Is there a way to practice for the initial tests? When does the next academy begin?

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