Cool, calm, collected
Be it a toothache or a suicide attempt, when something is amiss on campus, UCPD dispatchers aim to get things under control
| 19 March 2003
Those who think doing laundry, feeding the kids, and paying bills at the same time is a juggling act should spend 15 minutes with a UC Police Department dispatcher. Their ability to deal simultaneously with many events — often involving urgent safety issues and life-and-death situations — would humble the most accomplished multitasker.
From a small, dimly lit room in the basement of Sproul Hall, one or two dispatchers (depending on the time of day) must coordinate the activity of eight or more police officers, process incoming 911 and general department calls, monitor more than 550 campus alarms, retrieve background information on criminal suspects, and type in all related data, among other duties. And they frequently perform these activities all at once.
The calls they receive vary wildly in subject matter and severity, from car accidents, fires, and armed robberies to overflowing toilets, lost cats, and keys locked in cars. Regardless of the situation, the dispatchers must, within seconds, analyze the situation, determine a course of action, and contact the right resources.
This often requires them to carry on two, three, or more conversations at a time with, say, several panicked citizens, a beat cop, his or her captain, and an officer from a neighboring agency (such as the Berkeley Police Department or BART Police).
When things get heated up, the dispatchers perform a deft but tension-filled dance as they push their rolling chairs back and forth along a bank of five computer screens, lunge for printouts, stab at flashing buttons on a switchboard, clack fiercely on a keyboard, and step on a special pedal that allows them to shift between phone and radio communication.
“Our job is to put order to chaos,” says dispatcher Adam Bragg. “We’ve got a lot of stuff flying at us from all different directions, and our ability to keep it together ensures the safety of both the public and our officers.”
Eye of the storm
Despite what’s transpiring on the other end of their phone and radio lines — whether silly or serious — the dispatcher’s demeanor must remain the same: cool, calm, and collected.
“As soon as a call is answered, we must set the tone,” says dispatcher Tyrone Morrison. “If I panic, the caller can hear it in my voice, and then they panic too.”
Depending on the situation, callers might be very upset: crying, shouting, and unable to provide the information dispatchers need to properly assess the predicament.
“The first few minutes can make or break a situation,” says Bragg. “If we get a hysterical caller, we first have to get them calmed down, then keep them composed while we find out about the circumstances involved. If we don’t ask the right questions, it can put people in a lot of danger.”
For example, if they get a call reporting domestic abuse, key questions dispatchers ask are whether alcohol consumption is involved, guns are in the house, and children are present.
While dispatchers must sometimes be forceful when gathering needed details, they also have to speak carefully with certain callers, says Morrison, so as not to exacerbate delicate situations, such as suicide attempts.
“You don’t want to say anything that will set them off and cause them to hang up on you” he says. “You want to keep the conversation flowing and maintain contact until help arrives.”
Though dispatchers must maintain an almost mechanical exterior in order to conduct their jobs, they are still very much human on the inside, vulnerable to all the same emotions as the rest of us. They just can’t expose them while on the hot seat.
For Morrison, the inability to get more involved with what’s happening on the other end of the line can be very frustrating. He recalled the time a child in Albany Village was found not breathing and a neighbor dialed 911. He wanted to tell the caller to give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, but by law he’s not permitted to give medical advice.
“As a parent, I can imagine how upsetting it must be to find an unconscious child,” he says. “But there are certain actions I can take as a father that I can’t as a dispatcher.”
Constance Peppers, a UCPD dispatcher for more than 25 years, remembers a particularly horrendous call she received in May 1985, after a bomb planted by the Unabomber exploded in Cory Hall, violently amputating the fingers from the left hand of EECS graduate student John Hauser.
“The sounds I heard on the end of the line were so awful, with people screaming and crying, and then officers describing the bloody scene upon their arrival. I’ll never forget it,” she recalls. “Once everything was under control, I went to the bathroom and cried. But then I got myself composed and went back to work. You just have to try and let it go.”
Misuse of 911
For every urgent 911 call they get, twice as many or more received on that line involve less-than-pressing issues, laments Peppers.
“It’s amazing how many people use 911 to report incidents that don’t involve crime, safety issues, or accidents,” she says. “This pulls our time and attention away from legitimate 911 calls.”
There is a general police department number (642-6760) people can call to report non-emergency situations, but, says Peppers, because it’s not as easy to remember, it doesn’t get used properly.
“I got a 911 call from a professor saying he was locked out of his building,” she says. “I told him that 911 is for emergency calls, and he shouted, ‘This is an emergency — I can’t get into my office!’”
Morrison got one call from a woman complaining about a dog tied to a tree outside Wheeler Hall with no water to drink, and another that involved a student with a toothache. Some folks call just to chat, he adds.
“There was this one fellow who, for a short period of time, called every night at the same time. He was lonely and didn’t have anyone else to talk to,” Morrison explains. “I finally had to put my foot down and tell him to stop. We don’t want to sound uncaring or insensitive, but we have to keep these lines open for true emergencies.”
Why do it?
Despite the mental and emotional pressures of the job, Peppers, Bragg, and Morrison say they wouldn’t dream of doing anything else. Dispatchers, they say, are a special breed: adrenaline junkies who feed off solving problems and helping people.
“I think it’s fun,” says Morrison. “It can be hard at times, but the variety is what keeps me coming back. Nothing’s ever the same.”