The great myth
They say they’re just doing their jobs, but for public-safety telecommunications professionals, those jobs demand extraordinary dedication, discipline and sensitivity. Each year, the E911 Institute and the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials honor the profession as part of their awards programs, each recognizing a public-safety telecommunicator for outstanding performance.
For 2008, the E911 Institute named Patricia Michaels, a telecommunications supervisor at the CENCOM public-safety answering point in St. Clair, Ill., its Call Taker/Dispatcher of the Year. Meanwhile, APCO recognized Karen Roy, a communications officer in the Emergency Communications Division of the Stafford County (Va.) Sheriff’s Department, as its Telecommunicator of the Year.
The night of the incident that earned Michaels her award began like any typical night shift at CENCOM — way beyond busy. “It’s like you put your finger in a light socket,” Michaels said. After 3 a.m., though, things usually quiet down. So when the phone rang at 4:43 one morning in March last year, Michaels and two colleagues were unwinding with CNN.
The call came from a frightened woman who said her husband had attacked her, cut her hair with scissors and tried to choke her. Michaels’ computer screen showed the call came from O’Fallon, Ill., about 10 miles away. But the woman said her location was Seoul, South Korea.
The wife of a military member stationed at the Yongsan Army Garrison, the caller recently had arrived in Seoul with her 18-month-old child. She had used her computer and Vonage’s voice-over-IP (VoIP) service to call 911. Because the service was registered in O’Fallon, the call was routed to CENCOM.
“I’d never even had an overseas call before,” said Michaels, who has worked in 911 centers since 1985.
Complicating the situation, the caller told Michaels that she and her husband lived not on base, but in nearby civilian housing. That meant Michaels had to get the Korean National Police, not the U.S. military police, to respond. On top of that, the woman didn’t know the address or where the apartment building stood in relation to the nearby Yongsan Garrison.
Looking for help, Michaels called Scott Air Force Base, which operates a secondary PSAP for the county, and conferenced Staff Sgt. Michael Yeagley into the call. He started hunting for someone at the base in Seoul who could help pinpoint the woman’s location.
Yeagley began by calling Scott AFB’s general operator. “They have pretty much every number imaginable. I worked with them to get the number over there,” he said.
The call from Korea also was a first for Yeagley. “I’ve handled 911 calls numerous times, but never from a different country,” he said.
Meanwhile, Michaels kept the caller on the line. “She had only been there two days, which was devastating to her,” she said. At one point, the husband made another attack. “She started screaming, ‘Leave me alone!’ [It was] that really bad domestic scream that you hear quite often.”
Luckily, Yeagley found people at the base who could translate the scant information at hand about nearby landmarks into the couple’s address. He rejoined Michaels on the line, and both talked with the caller until the police arrived, about 45 minutes after Michaels first answered the phone.
“Hopefully, they both got the help they needed,” Michaels said, adding that she’s not allowed to investigate what happened to the caller afterwards. “But I sure was tempted,” she admitted. “I’d love to give her motherly advice and help her out.”
Because her center had no protocol for handling an emergency call routed from the other side of the world, Michaels relied on experience and instinct to help move the incident to a happy ending. “Sometimes you have to think outside the box,” she said. “And sometimes you have to make decisions and just go from A to B, C to D until you come up with the right choice.”
Just as Michaels used skill and compassion to help a caller half a world away, Karen Roy called upon those qualities to help ease a tragic situation close to home.
On the evening of Oct. 19, 2007, Roy dispatched sheriff’s deputy Jason Mooney to a motor-vehicle accident on I-95. The county’s fire/EMS dispatchers had already sent a fire unit to the scene; Mooney’s fiancé, a member of the fire department, rode on that vehicle.
Roy tried to contact Mooney with further information about the incident, but he didn’t answer her radio calls. Soon, fire/EMS dispatchers reached the Emergency Communications Center (ECC) with news that explained the silence. There had been a second accident: Mooney’s cruiser had hit a tree on I-95, and he was trapped in the vehicle.
Mooney’s injuries were so severe that although Roy asked for a helicopter to fly him to a hospital, fire/EMS personnel decided that they couldn’t wait and would transport him via ambulance.
In the meantime, telecommunicators continued to handle other emergencies, including a drug overdose at a high school and a suicide attempt at a youth center. Then another call came in. It was Mooney’s father, who was following the radio traffic on a scanner. “He already knew what was going on,” Roy said.
“When he first told me, ‘I’ve been listening to the scanner; I know it’s my son,’ it floored me,” Roy said. “I didn’t know what to say to him. How do you reach through the phone and tell somebody, ‘I’m sorry’? But I couldn’t say anything because I don’t have the authority to speak about something like that.” Following protocol, Roy looked for a patrol supervisor to call into the ECC and talk with the elder Mooney.
Unfortunately, Deputy Mooney did not survive.
It was the conversation with Mooney’s father that prompted Karen Hileman, the ECC’s operations manager, to nominate Roy for the APCO award. Hileman heard the exchange when she prepared a tape of the night’s activity for the sheriff.
“She was professional in her tone,” Hileman said. “Most people think professional is sterile,” but Roy clearly was not that. She treated the father with respect. “She was compassionate. She was hopeful.”
No training can prepare a telecommunicator to speak with the father of a co-worker in such a painful situation, said Hileman, who worked as a training manager for 17 years. “She truly spoke from her soul.” Roy followed procedure, but she didn’t sound procedural, Hileman said. “She answered every question he had, she spoke with him, she reassured him that she was going to have someone call, and she did.”
After listening to the tape, Hileman spent two and a half hours writing a letter nominating Roy. “I’d like to say I did it as a boss thinking of these awards,” Hileman said. “I didn’t. I just wrote it as a thank you note.”
Roy, who served in the Army and spent two and a half years at a PSAP in Newport News, Va., before coming to Stafford County, said she appreciates the hard work Hileman put into her nomination. “A lot of us do things for people in that job every day. It’s normal for us to do it. And you really don’t get the recognition until someone else finds it important and puts it into words.”
At the same time, Roy said, it hurts to accept an award that comes in connection with a tragedy. “It’s really hard to feel congratulated on something when somebody dies,” she said. “It would be different if he had pulled through, and we could sit there and I could joke with him about it. But I can’t. And he was a good man.”