On being thick-skinned
A police officer wants to talk to Merrilee Satriano on a secret channel. “Go ahead, sir,” she radios.
“I saw something in the bulletin,” the officer said. “How many more days?”
“Thirteen more working days,” she smiled.
Satriano is a dispatcher who is retiring after 32 years with the Denver Police Department. When she first started, she interacted with citizens in distress as a call-taker. She switched halfway through her career and became a dispatcher. (The police department separates the two jobs.)
Technological advances have changed her job dramatically over the last few years. She pulls out a red cardboard ticket to demonstrate. “This is what we used to use to record calls,” she said. Red tickets were for emergencies, white for non-emergencies, and each was filled out by hand using codes and then time-stamped.
Now, she spends 10 hours a day behind four flat-screen monitors that run computer-aided dispatch software. The status of each incident is differentiated by color. Alarms are used to notify her of prior incidents related to an address or suspect, and a GIS application is used to map officer locations to determine who’s closest to the scene.
A message box pops up on the middle console. It’s a notification from neighboring Adams County about an attempted child abduction that happened 30 minutes earlier. Before transmitting the message over the radio to officers in the field, she reads the details so “I don’t sound too stupid,” she joked. Because the department has been using plain speak for the last four years, it’s her job to digest the details and transmit a concise message. She then radios an officer — simultaneously clicking through screens — and describes the suspect: a male with piercings last seen driving a Ford truck with new rims.
Satriano laughs with co-workers between calls, which seem to come in every few seconds. She is calm. She seamlessly managed 31 incidents moving screen by screen, communicating addresses and prior incidents via radio to officers in the field. She transmits details of another call, a domestic dispute where the suspect was threatening to kill his entire family. She repeated the address, identified the suspect as male, reported that unknown weapons were involved, and advised officers that a prior 911 hang-up came from the location.
Managing incidents comes second-hand to Satriano, and she credited time on the job and technological advancements. She wished current technology was available during the Columbine High School incident in April 1999, when she spent five hours dispatching.
It was a chaotic day. Her role was to try to get officers to cover corners at the school and in the surrounding neighborhoods. But mapping systems didn’t exist 10 years ago, and she was unfamiliar with specific areas. In addition, a lack of mutual-aid channels and incompatible radio systems hindered everyone’s ability to organize an effective multi-jurisdictional response.
They also received calls from citizens and those trapped inside the school. She looked down when she described the details of the horrific scene and dispatching the information to officers.
“I’ve never listened to the 911 tapes from that day,” Satriano said, shifting uncomfortably in her chair.
She’ll miss the job but admits it’s not for everyone.
“You must be thick-skinned,” she said.
Mary Rose Roberts is the associate editor for Urgent Communications.