Dispatchers, saving lives one call at a time

Published 10:25 am Tuesday, April 17, 2018

A group of unsung heroes walk among the rest of us, blending in just as Clark Kent and Peter Parker did in the comic book world.

But behind closed doors these heroes sit in front of multiple computer screens, don a headset and phone and calmly help people in dire situations.

“There’s a saying, your worst day is our every day,” Stormy Dupuis, telecommunications officer with the Port Arthur Police Department, said.

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April 8-April 14 was National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week and The Port Arthur News spoke with a group of these civilian officers known as dispatchers.

They answer calls and gather information that goes into a Computer Aided Dispatch System, or CAD. Calls are then moved out to the proper first responders while keeping track of their location and situation.

Telecommunications officers Camella O’Brien, left, and LaTonya James at the Port Arthur Police Department on Friday.
Mary Meaux/The News

But there’s more to the job than answering phones. Just ask LaTonya James.

While she isn’t one to discuss one of her most well known calls, the information is available with a few keystrokes on the internet. In 2013, she received a call from a frightened but levelheaded boy who was home alone in the broad daylight when several burglars broke into his home. James kept the child on the phone and advised him to hide in a closet as she dispatched and communicated with officers en route.

Christian Gutierrez, telecommunications officer with the Port Arthur Police Department, gets ready to take a call at the police station Friday.
Mary Meaux/The News

The boy’s voice cracked slightly during the 911 recording but James calmly spoke to him and may have helped save his life.

“The job we do is not for recognition,” James, a nine-year veteran dispatcher, said.

In the first responders’ world it all begins and ends with the dispatcher. They receive the call, aid in communication and later close out the call.

Veteran dispatcher Camella O’Brien said the job is not easy but she loves what she does.

“You can’t be here just for the money. There are long hours but you make a difference in people’s lives,” O’Brien said. “A mom might call whose child is in distress or someone will call who found their loved one deceased. We have to be calming.”

A mouse pad in one of the telecommunications offices at the Port Arthur Police Department.
Mary Meaux/The News

Christian Gutierrez, who has been a dispatcher for five years, agrees with her co-workers in that everything begins and ends with dispatch.

Gutierrez was on duty when 6–year-old Olyviah Pinney called because her mother was having a seizure while in a vehicle. She knew she was seeing a medical emergency, locked the doors to the car and used her mom’s cell phone to call her dad to ask for their address so she could call 911, according to a story on the Girl Scouts website. Her father was able to contact 911 while en route to the scene and by giving his wife’s cell number; 911 operator Gutierrez was able to contact the little girl for critical information.

Telecommunications officers, or dispatchers, at Port Arthur Police Department do not use typical phones in their work hence the ‘phone rest’ on one of the desks in the dispatch department.
Mary Meaux/The News

Pinney was recently awarded with the Medal of Honor Lifesaving Award from the Girl Scouts of the USA for her brave actions.

Dupuis said dispatchers are forever adapting and one phone call is like another.

“We think of the callers as family. I think of the children as my nieces and nephews and the elderly as my grandparents,” Dupuis said. “For children I have to think: How can I make this comprehendible for a 4-year-old?”

There are smile worthy moments. Dispatchers know all too well the importance of keeping the emergency channel open for emergencies only but there are times when a call slips in that’s not a life-or-death situation. For O’Brien, it’s an elderly person who calls in during Daylight Savings Time and when the time switches back.

“This older person calls every time the time changes and will say ‘I know y’all have the correct time and I don’t want to be late for church,’” O’Brien said.

During Tropical Storm Harvey’s devastating flooding, dispatchers were on duty for many hours as calls for help soared. Many lost their own vehicles and/or homes but were on duty when needed.

“It was constant,” Dupuis said. “People think we hung up on them and we didn’t.”

The dispatchers work together and probably spend more time with their co-workers than with family members. Those co-workers become like family and work as one, she said.

The telecommunications office also fields direct calls for police, fire and administration as well as animal control after hours and weekends. Sometimes they receive calls for water and power issues while other times they are fielding calls about alligators, raccoons, opossums and snakes.

Through it all, they are the calm voice in the storm steadying the weak, the sick, the fearful and even the angry. James said sometimes it’s difficult to keep your composure but you do.

“Some people think we’re just secretaries. We transfer calls and input information,” James said. “However, it’s very difficult. We just make it look easy.”