From the depths
For Wendy Knight, serving the public is a family affair. Her father is a retired Chicago police officer, while she has spent the last 12 years as a telecommunicator for the Bixby (Okla.) Police Department’s 911 center.
The Bixby call center dispatches both fire and police. Dispatchers answer four 911 emergency phone lines and five non-emergency police and fire phone lines. The system is IP-based, and all data are displayed on a computer-aided dispatch system in real-time. The CAD system also taps into camera feeds sent from video surveillance systems installed in the city’s major intersections.
“We are able to view the camera system and follow vehicles to tell the officers where to go because we can see it in real-time,” she said. “The camera system definitely helps us a lot.”
Knight is both a call-taker and dispatcher. To be successful, she constantly has to prioritize incidents and keep calm.
“It can be hectic sometimes,” Knight said. “In high-stress situations, that’s when we have to prioritize our calls because there are several times you have more than one thing at one time. That’s how you balance it. You have to decide what’s more pressing of an incident.”
Extremely high call volumes also pose a big challenge, Knight said. The ability to multi-task is crucial.
“A lot of times when you have several major emergencies, your instincts kick in and you just go on autopilot,” she said. “I definitely think multi-tasking is a natural ability because I’ve hired people we had to let go because they weren’t able to multi-task.”
The 911 center often makes call-takers work 10-hour shifts to ensure the public has reliable 911 services, because it is constantly short-handed, Knight said. She points to a high turnover rate in the field as one factor. And in the current economic climate, call-takers often are not replaced.
“Due to budgets, you’re not allowed to hire right away, which is the situation we are in now,” she said. “We’ve been down a person since February due to budget cuts, so that means when someone takes off a day we have to work extra shifts and overtime — that is the biggest challenge.”
Still, Knight enjoys her job, especially when a call ends in a positive manner. For example, she fielded a 911 call last year from an elderly woman. Her husband suffered a heart attack while driving, pressed on the gas and careened their vehicle into a 20-foot-deep lagoon. They were behind a furniture store, the caller told her. But as the couple was unfamiliar with the area, Knight had to guess where they were located. She dispatched the fire department to the presumed location.
Knight stayed on the line the entire time. The woman feared for her life; the car was filling with water and her husband was unresponsive. She listened to the woman panic about the possibility of drowning because the car was going under water.
Knight instructed her to move to the rear of the vehicle. Suddenly, she lost the caller. When the first responders arrived, the car was completely submerged, she said. They busted out the back of the car window, and there was the woman. She had found a small air pocket in the back of the vehicle and survived.
“We saved her,” she said. “It was a miracle and was just incredible. It was one of my best days on the job.”
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