Working at Modesto's regional 911 center is not for the timid

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Nov 16, 2004
"911, what's your emergency?"
"I need a f****** 911. I need somebody over here."
"What's your emergency? What happened?" asked the 911 call taker, Joy Myers.
"This guy is over here being stupid and punching everybody. ... He's in the house," the woman sobbed. "He's hitting my cousin."
The woman gave her location and contact information to Myers, then hung up. About 20 minutes later, the woman called back, her voice more anguished.
"Can we get somebody out here, please? Can we get this lunatic out of here?"
"Is anybody injured?" Myers said.
The woman sobbed through several more questions. Myers reassured her, then got off the phone and forwarded the information to a dispatcher. Throughout the exchange, and hundreds of others in the shift, Myers, 27, stayed calm. That's what she's trained to do.
Myers was one of about 10 call takers and dispatchers at the Stanislaus Regional 911 Dispatch Center in Modesto on a recent Friday night. The center handles emergency calls for the Modesto Police Department, the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department and many area fire agencies.
The center gets 38,000 to 52,000 calls each month, a supervisor said. In July, 55,344 calls came in. That's an average of 1,785 calls a day, 74 an hour.
Police departments in Ceres, Oakdale and Turlock also house dispatch centers.
From 1 to 2 a.m., Myers and another call taker seemed to answer the phone at least once a minute. A woman called, upset that a neighbor had jumped into her yard and taken off with her rooster. A man spoke anxiously as he tailed a drunken driver, his engine revving as he tried to keep pace with the lawbreaker.
Then there was the man reportedly choking his mother in a pool hall parking lot. A gang fight outside a bar. A party at an apartment complex where the guests were "not necessarily fighting, but ... going outside and peeing. They're just being really loud," the caller said.
Myers asks questions that will help her paint a picture for responding officers.
"I have to be his eyes," she said. "If you were the one going to the call, what would you want to know? If there's weapons, I always ask that. Has he been drinking, doing drugs? Is anyone injured? Is it physical, are there children witnessing this? Anything that would make a difference. You just want officers to know what they're walking into."
Extensive training required
Those who answer the center's phones are the first point of contact for people needing emergency services, said supervisor Russ Overstreet, 52. It's a big responsibility, with extensive training to make sure staff is prepared.
Dispatcher Erika Graff, 24, said it took a year to get hired. After background checks and psychological tests, new hires shadow experienced call takers and dispatchers for four to six months before handling calls on their own.
Graff handles radio traffic for Modesto police and sheriff's deputies. Her fingers fly across the keyboard as she scans monitors, checking whether someone is a registered sex offender, has a criminal record or whether a car has been reported stolen. Dispatchers receive readouts on their screens from the call takers about each incident. Then they decide which officers to send where.
"It's very strategic. You're moving people around in the areas they need to be or taking them away from the areas they don't," she said. "It's like a big game of chess."
Dispatchers and call takers work 12-hour shifts. They can't leave their consoles, even to go to the bathroom, without getting someone to cover, Graff said.
At all times, she's surrounded by monitors, plugged into a headset. Her foot hovers over a pedal she presses to broadcast.
Another dispatcher, Jennifer Sanson, 37, said she holds the county's roads and geography like a "big map" in her head, but it still can be a challenge to decide where to send each patrol car.
"A car up north might be closer to the beat where a call comes in, but maybe it's 5 p.m. and traffic's really bad," she said. "So maybe you need to find somebody along the freeway and send them instead. It's the big picture."
Through most of a recent graveyard shift, calls for police are steady but typical. A warrant service on a wanted parolee. A fight with baseball bats. Loud music and cars cruising McHenry Avenue.
From time to time, a raised voice cuts through the room.
"Ma'am, ma'am, I'm not with the Police Department so there's no need to yell at me," a call taker snapped.
Speed is crucial, sympathy isn't
Trying to get information fast can be critical, so dispatchers must sometimes substitute severity for sympathy, Graff said.
"People can be really rude and abusive," she said. "A lot of times people call to tattle. They call for advice. They call because they're crazy and they want to talk."
Sanson said she seems to deal with "10 percent of the people 90 percent of the time," the same parolees, dueling couples and transients. "I know these people's birthdays better than I know my own children's."
Graff emphasized the importance of communication, not just on the radio, but inside the room. If a dispatcher is handling a hard call, co-workers can radio for back-up, pull maps to direct officers or call for ambulances. Dispatchers barely need to speak or look at each other to help because many decisions are made by typing messages on a screen. The coordination can be uncanny.
"I've gotten goose bumps more than a few times," Graff said.
Though dispatchers tend to downplay the difficulty of their jobs, referring to their "thick skin" or the way they've gotten used to the stress and the graphic nature of some calls, psychologist Jocelyn Roland said the work can take a heavy toll. Roland has worked with California dispatchers since 1996, though not at the regional center.
Dispatchers must follow strict rules and multitask in high-pressure situations, such as shootings and pursuits, she said. But, unlike officers on the streets, dispatchers rarely know how calls turn out. Unless they make an effort later to look up every call, try to reach the officer when the incident winds down, or read about it in the newspaper, they often are left hanging.
"The other part that can be stressful is that they have a very limited scope of influence in terms of resolving a situation," Roland said. "They don't get to go out and make the arrest. They don't get to take that abusive parent away from the child. Yeah, they're part of the process, but they don't get the same satisfaction in the result as police, a firefighter, a paramedic. They frequently don't get 'thank yous.' "
But many say the challenge and excitement of the job are enough.
"There's been times when I've thought about doing something else," said dispatcher Sanson. "But what do you do once you've done this? I think anything else would be kind of boring."
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