Archive for Wednesday, December 1, 2004

Dispatcher comes across ‘loud and clear’

December 1, 2004

Perry Carter may not be a familiar face.

But he has a recognizable voice.

"I have been in Wal-Mart walking through there talking to my wife and I have had people approach me," Carter said. "They're people who have scanners or people who have called in here."

Carter, a dispatcher for Leavenworth County sheriff's office for 17 years, acknowledges his voice is unusual.

"I have a very distinctive sounding voice," said Carter, who grew up in Knoxville, Tenn. "I don't know that I have ever heard anybody with a voice like mine."

Tonganoxie's acting chief of police, Sgt. John Putthoff, agreed.

"There's no doubt you can tell who he is," Putthoff said, praising Carter for his take-charge attitude as a dispatcher.

"I personally like him as a dispatcher," Putthoff said. "He's not afraid to take the bull by the horns. I think, in a situation you need that. And, he's loud and clear."

Leavenworth County Sheriff Herb Nye, termed Carter's voice "distinctive," and added, "Yes there is no doubt you're talking to Perry -- his southern drawl is a little bit there."

According to Sgt. Jane Schubert, supervisor of communications, Leavenworth County dispatchers answer thousands of phone calls each month.

Here are statistics from a few months earlier this year:

¢ March: 5,548 administrative calls and 1,262 calls to 911.

¢ May: 6,447 administrative calls and 1,288 calls to 911.

¢ June: 5,371 administrative calls and 1,381 calls to 911.

Typically, calls peak in the evening hours.

As Carter speaks, an alarm sounds on one of the four computer screens in his cubicle.

Dispatchers handle calls from law enforcement officers, as well as from the public, either through the dispatch phone line or the 911.

"That's the 911 button," Carter said, quickly moving toward his touch-screen computer to answer the call.

But the call wasn't from a person in distress. It was from a fax machine at a local business.

"They're dialing a number on the fax machine and they hit 911 by mistake," Carter said. "It happens, human nature."

The situation of accidental 911 calls compounds when cell phones are used.

"When you carry your cell phone in your purse, do you lock your keypad?" he asks.

Carter is making a point he wishes were universally known.

It's this: When any button on a cell phone is pushed down long enough, 911 is automatically called. Oftentimes, the owner doesn't realize 911 has been called.

Lest anyone thinks locking a keypad would slow the process if they had to dial 911, rest assured.

"If you lock the keypad, you can still dial 911," Carter said.

No 911 hang ups

Of course, the dispatchers pick up non-emergency phone calls from land lines, as well.

"Today we've only had four or five of them," Carter said on a recent Friday afternoon. "On some days we get that many per hour."

Sometimes it's from children who think it's fun to dial 911 and then hang up. But what they don't know is that even if they hang up the phone before it rings, the 911 call will still go through.

"I don't mind," Carter said. "But it is time consuming. ... It's still an obligation to go out and check on those people."

Helping others

Emergency calls involve people of all ages.

"Calls involving children are the hardest to take," Carter said.

Sadly, sometimes there's nothing dispatchers, or anyone else, can do to help -- because the damage already has been done.

But there have been calls where the dispatchers played a role in preventing tragedy.

Carter recalled a call from a woman who said a burglar was in her house.

"She was in the closet with her cell phone and a gun," Carter said. "I kept her on the phone while an officer got over there and it turned out it was her husband and he was home early from work. There was the potential for an accident."

It's things like this that make his work worthwhile, Carter said.

"This is not a bad job. I love it. I would not want another job," Carter said. "... Once a person gets in this field and they stay in it long enough there's not another job out there that they would want."

Before working as a dispatcher, Carter served in the U.S. Army. Then he worked a short time as a loan officer in a bank. This job, he said, is much more rewarding.

"I just get a great satisfaction out of the feeling that I've actually helped somebody," Carter said. "It sounds like a canned answer -- it's not.

"If I was sitting in an office doing whatever, I don't see where I would have an impact on somebody's well being or on their lives."

For instance, from their telephones in the basement of the justice center, Carter, and other dispatchers for Leavenworth County and the city of Leavenworth, have instructed callers on how to give cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

That type of instruction is known as emergency medical dispatch.

"We do the EMD, but we do not do pre-arrival instructions," Carter said. "That is in the future, I would venture to say."

In giving pre-arrival instructions, the dispatchers would tell the caller how to treat people for different medical situations, staying on the line until emergency help arrived.

That would take additional training.

Sgt. Jane Schubert, supervisor of communications, said there are not enough employees to handle pre-arrival instructions, she said.

"We need more bodies first," Schubert said. "Because you are tied up with the caller giving pre-arrival instructions, that transfers all the other responsibility here onto one dispatcher. We just don't have the manpower."

What's an emergency

While dispatchers understand the meaning of the word "emergency," many people don't.

"The 911 number is for emergencies only," Carter said. "But my perception of 911 is different than the average citizen out there."

For instance, Carter said, he's received calls on the 911 number from people who wanted to know the phone number for the McDonald's restaurant.

"He's received calls about a cat being in a tree.

And then, Carter said, calls about common medical conditions warrant as serious an answer as calls that might at first seem more important.

For instance, a call about a child's asthma was one of the saddest calls Carter's has received on duty.

"In my first year here, a mother called. She was frantic about her 11-year-old child in an asthma attack. I found out later the child did die," Carter said. "You don't think of asthma as a serious disease, but once you get involved with it, you find out it's actually a deadly disease."

Long hours, short staff

Right now, the county's unit is about four dispatchers short.

But Carter, who is 58, doesn't expect relief to come soon.

Applicants must pass a written test as well as a background check, and complete two interviews.

"Training can be anywhere from six months to a year," Carter said. "You can't afford to hire somebody, train them for a month and say you're a dispatcher. You're putting people's lives in their hands. Would you want to call in here with an emergency and have a dispatcher that has no idea how to find your address -- can't read a map?"

The sheriff said one of the greatest challenges a dispatcher faces is prioritizing phone calls.

"Let's say I have a party here that cut their finger off, knowing that is really not a life-threatening thing, versus a baby choking on the other line where I'm trying to give instructions on how to give CPR," Nye said, noting the baby would be given first attention. "That's some of the decisions they have to make."

Fatherly advice

Carter, who said, his wife, Deborah, would describe him as meticulous, also likes to take it easy. In his spare time he often takes his fishing rod to area farm ponds. And, he thoroughly enjoys an evening of playing cards -- in particular, Texas hold 'em.

Though as a dispatcher he thinks of the safety of everyone, Carter, the father of a 32-year-old son and a 29-year-old daughter, both of whom have their own families and live in Leavenworth, also thinks of his family.

When the 911 siren at his desktop computer rings, he reacts as any parent or husband would.

"I say an instant prayer that it's not a family member," Carter said. "That's not being selfish, it's being a father and a husband and I just happen to work where the emergency calls come in."

In the years he's worked as a dispatcher, two calls have concerned his family. His wife came home from work and found the front door open. By the time Carter joined her there, the police were already on scene.

And last winter, his daughter called Carter at work to tell him her car had slid off the road and down an embankment.

"Fortunately, no one was injured," Carter said, then adding, not surprisingly, in his commanding manner. "It taught her a lesson -- to slow down -- when the weather is bad to slow down."

Teamwork

The work, though stressful and unrelenting at times, is rewarding, Carter said.

It's not just the work itself, Carter said. It's the teamwork.

"We're a team, we've got to be a team." Carter said. "... In this room, everybody's got to know what everybody else is doing."

For instance, dispatchers can come in during the middle of an incident, look up the information on a computer and be able handle that call.

"That is expected," Carter said.

Today, 17 years after starting out as a dispatcher, Carter's still glad he did.

"To me, it's the best job in the world," Carter said. "You never know what's going to happen when you answer that phone -- and you're helping people."

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