MARICOPA — The words “first responder” often bring to mind images of blaring sirens, flashing red and blue lights and speeding emergency vehicles.
Those first on scene to a catastrophe are frequently the ones recognized as first responders, but there is another group who are equally as important to emergency services and are normally the first voice a person hears during a crisis moment.
Dispatchers who answer 911 calls hear the first and most defining moments of people’s worst days, and must be able to calm down the caller enough to glean vital information and dispatch services as quickly as possible.
The most rewarding part of the job for 30-year veteran dispatcher and Maricopa Dispatch Supervisor Linda Smith is “knowing that you help somebody during possibly the worst time of their life, that you brought some level of comfort to them.”
Smith’s 12-hour shifts as an operator vary vastly from day to day. Each of the 11 operators at MPD has six computer screens in front of them, juggling 911 calls and non-emergency calls through their headset while dispatching officers, running license plates and doing warrants checks.
Public Safety Communications Manager Jennifer Hagan says the operators field around 185 calls a day for a total of about 65,000 calls every year. These calls can pendulate anywhere from a domestic violence incident to a shooting, and operators have to take whatever the day throws at them in stride.
“They deal with life and death sometimes on a daily basis,” Hagan said. “A lot of times you take that internally — you take it home with you and you keep replaying calls over in your head. You have compassion for these people and it just bothers you, so it creates stress.”
Employees are offered counseling to deal with the stresses of their job, but Hagan says often the best therapy is talking to other dispatchers. Of the 11 operators on call, seven call Maricopa home.
Living in Maricopa is an asset to the team, who say that roadside markers are often what people refer to first in a 911 call.
“A lot of times callers don’t know exactly where they are and they’ll just pick out a point of interest. They’ll say, ‘I’m at the blue barn,’ or, ‘I’m at the old Hogenes farm,’ or something like that,” Smith said. “It really does help to be familiar with the area that you’re trying to send help to them.”
Both Hagan and Smith have over 30 years of service under their belts, with Hagan serving her first few decades with Phoenix Police Department and Smith in her home state of Minnesota. The Maricopa dispatch team is currently in the process of training three new hires, something that can take several months due to the demanding nature of the job.
“This job isn’t for everyone,” Smith said. “I mean, it really takes a certain personality type to be able to separate yourself sometimes from what goes on that phone.”
In a larger city like Phoenix, Hagan says she could respond to three different officers shot in one night, and had worked on large accidents like a downed jetliner. While things are quieter in a city like Maricopa, the small-town-feel creates its own set of complications.
“People know people,” Smith said. “There are days where you have to take a call from your neighbor or your child’s father and find out that something terrible has happened, and you have to deal with that. Those are really bad days.”
Though the team of operators deals with a lot of hard calls, they find joy in the small victories. Smith is happy if she is able to successfully walk someone through resuscitating a drowning victim, or rescue an officer in danger by dispatching back-up. For this, Smith says her interpretation of a good day might be a little different than the general public’s.
“To me, a good day is the day that we come to work, we get to do what we love, and nobody dies and nobody gets hurt and everybody gets to go home,” Smith said.
For the last few months, the dispatch center has been undergoing a study as part of an overall funding survey by the city. When Maricopa Police Department moves to their new nearly $8 million state-of-the-art facility on Wilson and Garvey avenues, Hagan hopes to have a new space for the operators — maybe even with some sunlit windows.
“We have a great center down here,” Hagan said. “I love working here, we have a great group of people. The city has been supportive of us since its inception. If and when the new building is built, my hope is that we’ll have input into it and be able to build another great center like we have now.”
Smith and Hagan both share a love for the community they work in, and they not only provide an essential service, but also a great sense of peace-of-mind for residents.
“The importance to the community is just the assurance that somebody is there if they’re needed,” Smith said. “When you call 911, there’s going to be somebody there on the other end of the line that’s going to help you — no matter what.”