Dispatchers learn to cope with stress of job

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 18, 2001

Lillie Clark had just begun a new job as a Natchez Police Department dispatcher when she received a call that still echoes through her mind today. &uot;I can just hear that woman’s voice right now,&uot; Clark said. &uot;It was like a death cry.&uot;

The woman said her brother just killed her other brother, and she was hysterical, Clark said. The first thing Clark had to do was calm the woman down so she could get her address.

The victim died from the shooting, and by the time police arrived, the suspect had fled the scene, Clark said.

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Still, the dispatcher’s job is to get the correct emergency vehicle moving as quickly as possible because &uot;you can only imagine what is taking place out there,&uot; Clark said.

And the calls – even when they are so serious – don’t always end so tragically. Twenty months ago, Concordia Parish Dispatcher Martha Lushute had just 13 minutes left on her 12-hour shift when the 911 line rang at 5:17 a.m. Lushute heard the familiar voice of one of the department’s veteran deputies. Deputy Jim Boyd had just been shot by two teenagers in the door of his Monterey home.

&uot;He said ‘Help me … please help me. I’m shot,’&uot; said Lushute, who, more than 20 months later, still shakes her head when remembering the July 3, 1999, incident.

&uot;At that point, you’re the only thing between them and the hereafter,&uot; she said.

In a crisis, Lushute fell back on her training.

&uot;You try to keep them on the phone,&uot; she said. &uot;You try to think of someone close to them who works as a first responder and can get there quickly. You think of the closest officer you have to that situation. Those first few minutes are crucial.&uot;

Within 32 minutes, Boyd was at the hospital and deputies had his assailants in custody.

And now, after several surgeries to repair injuries to his jaw, neck and hand, Boyd is back on the force.

&uot;When you can save that life, that’s when it feels good,&uot; said Lushute, who has worked for the department for more than seven years.

‘Every call is different’

Such crucial calls are part of a wide variety of requests for help that the parish sheriff’s department’s five dispatchers are required to field during their 12-hour shifts. That variety is quite different from the routine calls Lushute got in previous jobs at answering services and as a dispatcher for a security guard service and for Concordia Electric.

Some days, Lushute mostly gets calls regarding such routine matters as dog bites or stolen bicycles or officers calling in for messages. Other days could find her fielding emergency calls and rerouting less pressing calls at the same time.

&uot;You’ve got a caller who’s hurt, and someone else is calling to see what’s on your weather screen,&uot; she said. &uot;And at that moment, you could care less what’s on your weather screen. You’ve just got to prioritize and reroute those (non-emergency) calls.

&uot;In the course of 12 hours, there’s absolutely nothing you don’t handle,&uot; she said. &uot;Every call is different, a different set of circumstances.&uot;

Lushute admits to second-guessing herself constantly – in one case, sleeping fitfully for several nights after Boyd’s shooting, wondering if there was something she could have done differently.

For example, when she called the first responder to tell him that Boyd had been shot, she didn’t identify herself at first because she thought he knew her voice. The person’s boss called the sheriff’s office back and confirmed that the call was not a prank.

&uot;It only took a few seconds, but it felt like hours,&uot; Lushute said.

In such cases, a dispatcher relies on her training and does what must be done, she said.

&uot;You hear about these things in training, and you think, ‘If that ever happens to me, I’m going out the door.’ But you don’t – you just roll with it,&uot; she said. &uot;You’ve got to make sure that person stays alive, that you get somebody there.

&uot;You deal with it the best you can. When I walk out that door, I forget every call I&160;ever took during that time. … That’s something I&160;had to learn to do.&uot;

Dealing with the stress

No matter what the nature of the call, Clark said dispatchers learn to do their jobs without letting the caller’s concerns upset them.

&uot;You’re really calm at the time,&uot; she said. &uot;You don’t panic at the time.&uot;

Afterwards dispatchers often find they need a break from the stress.

&uot;You have to leave the room and get yourself back together and (then) come back,&uot; Clark said.

Lushute also finds little ways to deal with the stress that necessarily comes as part of the job. After a particularly difficult call, for example, Lushute finds another officer who can man the phones while she reads a few pages of a book, takes a five-minute walk or drinks a soda.

&uot;Sometimes another officer’s coming in and you can vent to them, and they can vent with you,&uot; Lushute said.

Taking a break wasn’t always so easy for Clark. She first began working as a dispatcher for the Natchez Police Department 10 years ago, when she was looking for a job.

In those days, police and fire dispatch had not been centralized, meaning only one dispatcher worked the radio equipment at a time. The only way a dispatcher could get a break after a difficult call was if a police officer filled in for a few minutes, Clark said.

Times have improved, but Clark admits her job continues to be stressful and full of surprises. &uot;I never know who’s on that line,&uot; she said.

Top priority

As a dispatcher, Clark said her top concern is for the officer on the street.

Early in her career, Clark said, the owners of a downtown business set up a surveillance system that immediately contacted the Natchez Police Department.

One day when Clark was working she actually heard glass break at the business and knew a burglary was in progress.

It scared her to have to dispatch an officer to the site knowing that a burglar was actually there.

&uot;My officer is No. 1,&uot; Clark said. &uot;I don’t care what’s going on out there. I want to bring them home. I want to bring them home to me.&uot;

So Clark tries to get as much information as she can about a call to assist the officers.

&uot;I feel responsible for them because I sent them to that call and I want to bring them back,&uot; she said.

Like Clark, Joyce Davis said she became a dispatcher simply because the job became available.

Plus, the job was an extension of her previous job as a switchboard operator at Natchez Regional Medical Center.

&uot;I get to learn more about communications, not to mention it’s a secure job,&uot; she said.

Both Clark and Davis say they often put themselves in the position of the frantic people who call. Davis says she once took a call from a woman who had found her mother-in-law dead.

&uot;She sounded like she was so hurt. You would have thought it was her mama,&uot; Davis said.

The incident made Davis want to stop right then and call her own mother.

After an emotional call, Davis often leaves the room, reads her Bible or just takes a short break.

Sometimes callers take their frustration out on the dispatchers, but dispatchers just have to remind them they are there to help them, Davis said.

Crucial law enforcement link

Natchez Police Chief Willie Huff said dispatchers are crucial to law enforcement but the stress and the low pay make for high turnover.

&uot;These dispatchers have to be able to think on their feet and do more than one thing at a time,&uot; Huff said. &uot;It’s a balancing act, and it’s a tough, tough job.&uot;

The Natchez Police Department employs 10 dispatchers, and six of them have less than a year experience.

Dispatchers have a starting salary of $6.86 an hour which is not really adequate for people who serve as a lifeline to the officers and the firefighters, Huff said.

They also serve as a lifeline to the person out on the street.

&uot;Whatever the situation is, I’m reaching out to someone,&uot; Clark said.

Seeing a child whose life you helped save playing like any other child or getting a letter from a person whose house wasn’t flooded because you called for sandbags – those are the moments a dispatcher lives for, Lushute said.

&uot;That’s one reason I&160;like this job – you can make a difference in someone’s life,&uot; she said. &uot;One person can make a difference.&uot;