Without the right tools, a tough job gets tougher
It was nearly 27 years ago when Kim Conway started her career as a dispatcher for the city of Cape Girardeau, Mo., after her sister-in-law—who already was a dispatcher—piqued her interest. What really struck a chord was when Conway’s sister-in-law said the dispatcher job was stable and offered her an opportunity to help people.
When Conway first started as a dispatcher, she dispatched for police only. She was surprised at the low salary offered to her at the time. Today, however, the city has increased salaries significantly given inflation and the fact that dispatchers now handle calls for police, fire and other first-responder agencies. In addition, she has been promoted and now holds the position of 911 communications manager.
Salary levels are not the only changes Conway has seen. In fact, technology has changed her job significantly. When she first started as a dispatcher, she used a No. 2 pencil and index cards to record information, using a series of codes or shorthand, to identify an incident, such as a fight in progress. Now, a CAD system does most of the work, providing an interactive GUI that makes it easier for dispatchers to process and record data, such as a landline caller’s location.
Having the technology to identify landline callers is a big change compared to when she first started. Back then, Conway could call people back but couldn’t access location data or their names.
“You didn’t know anything about them,” she said. “You simply had the ability to ring that line back.”
While communication technologies have come a long way nationwide, Missouri still has some catching up to do. State taxpayers have not agreed to fund upgrades to E-911 systems, which provide dispatchers with the locations of cellular 911 callers. Conway said that right now, when a cellular emergency call is received, dispatchers only have the ability to locate the cellular tower — not the actual location of the cell phone.
Indeed, if a person gets into an accident on a rural highway outside of Cape Girardeau, it may take hours for dispatchers to piece together the location — which costs money and manpower, she said. In comparison, with a landline, they can get the associated address and phone number, as well as the name of the person who lives at the residence.
“We don’t give up,” she said about 911 calls that originate from cellular phones. “[But] we end up spending hours trying to hopefully help somebody. If we simply had the technology, we could locate them immediately.”
In order to succeed on the job, Conway said that dispatchers must be able to multitask and not take every incident personally. “Even though you want to do everything you can to help somebody, you have to be able to be objective without letting your emotions get involved,” she said.
In addition, dispatchers must realize that they may not receive closure regarding an incident. Many times, they don’t learn of the outcome, such as whether a caller survived the incident.
“You may never know … what happened to that person you tried to help,” Conway said.
Conway admits that there’s stress on the job from contending with multiple emergencies at once across several agencies. It also is stressful to listen to the voices of so many people in pain or gripped with fear. She tries to help her staff deal with stress by offering encouraging words.
“I try to tell everyone not to take it home with them, which is impossible to do,” she said. “Then I tell them to just realize that they’ve helped somebody.”