By Barbara Kempster
I am one of your dispatchers and would like to give you a glimpse into my world at Emergency Communications Department. My background is twenty years as a dispatcher/911 calltaker. Seventeen of those years have been solely as a police dispatcher and the rest are now comprised of cross training in fire/medical/police duties as well as accepting all 911 calls for service.

We also have an added responsibility with providing medical/fire aid for CHP on the freeways. They are very much aware of that fact as well. Our first concern is for scene safety, so the call for service will be given to police with all pertinent suspect description, and direction of travel information. Immediately, another computer window will be brought up and a medical call will be sent for the shooting, stabbing, or trauma victim.

If the response involves another jurisdiction, I have to notify them while sill working on the same call.

A typical scenario is: A hang glider falls from Fort Funston. I have to tell Daly City Fire, San Mateo County Medical, and U.S. Park Police and advise them while sending up the information for SFPD - Marine 1, and the Coast Guard to respond.

Any bay rescues, involve contacting the Harbormaster.

At any moment, a phone call received can involve CPR at any age. I have had to do so for a 75 year old daughter for her 100 year old mother. The next week, the pendulum swung when a 20 year old mother had to breathe for her week-old son.

With the advent of cell phones, we have been deluged with callers from anywhere. The cell site may say Lands End but the caller could be at Stinson Beach.

One particular incident occurred when someone called for a cardiac arrest at Inspiration Point. While the calltaker gave CPR instructions, Presidio Fire responded but was unable to locate. The calltaker asked again for location and was still given the same place but she heard someone say Tilden Park in the background. With that she asked, “Are you calling from Berkeley?” with yes for an answer, she immediately transferred the call to them but so many precious minutes were lost.

Cell phone callers believe that we know EXACTLY where they are because they called 911. The fact is the cell site is what we see with a bogus address for the computer to accept, therefore our greeting is, “San Francisco emergency. What is the exact location of your emergency?” Most people don’t listen and just start talking. Others answer, “I don’t know. I’m not from San Francisco,” and hang up.

Technology has increased our dilemma with the VoIP service. This means that anyone can use their internet ID on their cell phone and call from ANYWHERE in the world. For us the display will be the billing address, if it’s in San Francisco. I have already received one call from India for a woman looking for her missing daughter.

Attached to all 911 calls is an alarm system so that any waiting emergency call, if not answered within a few seconds, will generate a tone that lasts for seven seconds. What the system does not do is mute the alarm once that call has been taken so the cycle gets completed with the irritating sound. We have answered the call right away, but the alarm keeps going.

We have taken horrendous calls with no outlet except another coworker talking with that calltaker. In the meantime, managers are telling us, “Plug in, 911 is ringing,” even though that call has been answered.

That brings up the staffing issue we have which is fifty percent to accommodate all fire/police/medical channels and still have twelve people assigned to answering phones. I am speaking for the swing watch for the hours of 1500-2300.

We have new classes that start with twenty people and by the sixth month, eight will qualify for phones and police dispatch only.

Those that still need to be cross trained are now at about thirty percent .

Many of us work twelve hour days, six days a week (that is including a day off) to avoid being mandatoried for overtime and this is an everyday occurrence. Often, we are approached to sell our lunch hour due to personnel shortage.

All these calls have taken a toll on us. From someone dying in my ear fro m a heroin overdose, talking to a sixteen-year old rape victim, and the ten year old boy who called me to say, “My dad just shot himself.”

I have to make sure police get there first but also to get the medical and fire response out there quickly when I know a suspect is no longer in the area. Or where to stage if a suspect is still on scene.

We used to be able to walk around the building during our break, but with all the recent shots fired and shootings directly across from our front door, this is no longer an option.

The fire discipline has been a totally new experience to that of the police department.

It goes beyond the controversy of code talk and clear text on the air.

I have to check to make sure the proper fire apparatus has been suggested to respond to certain calls. A special call for a battalion chief is similar to my asking a field supervisor to respond to an officer’s location due to an unusual circumstance.

What I have noticed is how alike the two disciplines are. A police officer will yell out for backup. An engine will quietly, but emphatically request police or another ambulance. Both situations involve a very dire emergency.

As I’ve told my coworkers, the big difference is police have an earpiece so their call for help will be heard in that fashion. As for fire and medical, your radios are out in the open therefore, a special call can be heard by suspects within your view, or family members, or an unstable psychiatric person.

I feel that with our extensive background in police work, it gives us the inherent understanding of a potential bad situation and so we keep our mind more focused on some of the calls we have dispatched to you.

One big factor that we do not get in dispatch is an end to a story. We have taken everything from the beginning, sent out all the necessary personnel, but never know what happened.

This has added to our stress level in such a way you cannot imagine. Stress units will tell you it’s called, “vicarious trauma,” much like what therapists get when listening to war veterans. We get calls from Vietnam and the Gulf War vets too.

With us doing all discipline dispatching, it has made it more possible for all field public safety personnel to get to know one another better and understand each other’s role.

I hope this article gives you a little more insight into the unknown field of dispatch and calltaking duties. It really has been a rewarding experience for me.


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