A tribute to the voice that answers when things go horribly wrong

ST. GEORGE — The car disappeared into a 20-foot ravine with an injured woman trapped inside. Several minutes later the sound of sirens broke the silence as a caravan of emergency vehicles lined the side of Interstate 15 as first responders arrived and freed the woman before rushing her to the hospital.

In this file photo, a Blue Toyota passenger car lands at the bottom of a ravine after the driver lost control and rolled the car on Interstate 15 Sunday, Washington City, Utah, Feb. 5, 2017 | Photo by Cody Blowers, St. George News

The woman was saved thanks to a single call made to the St. George Communications Center by a semitractor-trailer driver who witnessed the crash as it happened in February.

That one call brought numerous responders to a scene where firefighters found the truck driver 20 feet into the ravine crouched near the driver’s side of the vehicle, one witness said.

“The truck driver saw the whole thing and called 911,” Utah Highway Patrol Trooper Jesse Williams said at the scene. “Then he rendered aid, and we are sure appreciative of that.”

See video in the media player top of this report.

The truck driver was telling the injured woman that help was on the way through the shattered window of her car.

Help arrived in numbers as emergency vehicles lined the southbound outside shoulder of the interstate, summoned by an emergency dispatcher who received the truck driver’s call to 911 minutes earlier.

Read more: Driver reportedly falls asleep on I-15, rolls car off embankment

It’s common to see police, fire and EMS to show up with lights and sirens blaring when there’s an emergency. It’s what happens before they respond that can sometimes go unnoticed, which is the emergency dispatcher who summoned those responders to the scene.

The St. George Communications Center employes 41 emergency dispatchers and receives and dispatches all police, fire and EMS calls in Washington County, St. George, Utah, April 21, 2017 | Photo by Cody Blowers, St. George News

National Public Safety Telecommunications Week is typically held the second week in April and honors the thousands of men and women who answer emergency calls, dispatch emergency services personnel and provide lifesaving assistance to communities across the country.

At the close of National Public Safety Telecommunications Week, there are still 51 other weeks to honor those who work behind the scenes as the voices at the other end of the line during some of life’s most horrible events.

“We all know what number to call when everything is ‘hitting the fan,’ and it’s not Ghostbusters,” Officer Lona Trombley, public information officer for the St. George Police Department, said.

Exhibiting grace under pressure, steadfast professionalism and a calm voice that reaches out to someone on the worst day of their life takes courage, Trombley said.

Though the federally-recognized week of appreciation is officially over, the service that they provide continues steadfastly.

The normal workday of an emergency dispatcher is abnormal in every way.

To credit the super heroes that work behind the scenes in the St. George Communications Center, Trombley directed and released a two-part video series that provides a glimpse into the 911 world.

“To celebrate our amazing dispatchers we put together another two-part series,” Trombley said, “putting a face to the voice on the other end of 911.”

Click play on the media players below to see the department’s video production – Report continues below

In Utah there are 680 emergency dispatchers who play a critical role in the area of public safety, and 41 of them are working in the St. George Communications Center,  Justin Grenier, St. George Communications Center assistant manager, said.

Nationwide, more than 95,000 people work in emergency call centers, according to data released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2016.

Meghan Bench has been working for the St. George Communications Center for a few years, bringing with her a wealth of experience from Idaho where she worked as a police, fire and EMS dispatcher for more than a decade.

Motto painted on the wall in the St. George Communications Center in St. George, Utah, April 21, 2017 | Photo by Cody Blowers, St. George News

Bench said she enjoys that every call and every day on the job is different, adding that she enjoys the enormous amount of ongoing training that’s involved with her position.

“We are always learning new techniques to handle certain calls, and there is so much training here,” she said.

Speaking of the challenges of the job, Bench described the transition that takes place as they move from one call to another, particularly when they are dealing with a life-or-death emergency one minute and the next is a caller asking a basic question.

“One challenge is how quickly you have to go from an incident, a big incident, a tragedy, to something ordinary or mundane,” she said.

Bench described a call involving a medical emergency when a child had fallen into a pool, and directly after that call she was answering questions regarding the date a police report was filed.

The type of stress that 911 dispatchers experience can be significant and is unique to the position as it develops while listening to someone else’s absolute worst day — every single day.

Research conducted in 2012 at Northern Illinois University suggests that the indirect exposure to trauma that disatchers experience places them at a higher risk for developing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

“The NIU study suggests that one does not need to be physically present during a traumatic event, or to even know the victim of a trauma, in order for the event to cause significant mental health challenges,” Professor Michelle Lilly, one of the authors of the study said.

Stress is one of the elements of the job mentioned by all of the employees interviewed, and Annalee Burnett said that the amount of stress that goes along with the job surprised her at first. However, Burnett said that she learned “very quickly” how to overcome it.

“It is pretty stressful, and is very hard on you at times,” Burnett said.

For Adam Adkins, helping people is what drew him to the profession, and one of the challenges is dealing with particularly traumatic incidences, he said, and trying to help the caller through the process.

“It’s more difficult than you think,” Adkins said.

Adkins also said that there are calls that are more stressful than others and some have a significant impact on him. Despite the difficulty, he said, it’s important to handle each call professionally as he related one particular call involving a suicide.

“You don’t know how you are supposed to take that,” Adkins said, “and to be able to stay calm and to be professional; to help them though this trying time, it’s something you don’t know that’s in yourself that you have to find.”

And the calls keep coming in record numbers, Trombley said.

“This year we are already on track to beat last year’s numbers, and the call numbers go up every year, along with the number of  calls that police respond to as well,” St. George Communications Center communications manager Cindy Flowers said.

Last year nearly 149,000 inbound calls were received with an additional 45,700 outbound calls, totaling approximately 195,000 calls, Grenier said.

“From the dispatch center, all the way up to officers on patrol, we are here to help,” Trombley said, “and if an incident happen and you’re unsure who to call, but you are worried or scared, call 911 and we can help you.”


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Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2017, all rights reserved.

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1 Comment

  • Proud Rebel April 22, 2017 at 11:51 am

    There have been so many tremendous changes​ in the dispatcher’s job over the past few decades. It used to be a job that was seen as basic employment. Salaries and training refelected that perception.
    And yet the one thing that has not changed, is the stress of the job. The cops, hose draggers, and meat wagon personnel, all get plenty of physical activity to help burn off the stress that they have from the job. The dispatcher is going through the same adrenaline rush as the responders, but instead of being able to be physically involved in handling the situation, they are confined to the office to handle the next calls.
    (FWIW, I made the sentence with the derogatory names of responders, with the loving experience of doing every one of those jobs, and hearing those names. I also spent a couple of years doing dispatch work. All this was “back in the dark ages,” of the late ’60’s to the middle ’90’s.)
    Anyway, back on track. Emergency services administration finally woke up, sometime in the ’80’s, (after numerous lawsuits, and millions of bucks paid out,) and began to finally recognize that dispatch is a key part of getting the responders out to handle calls of all types. Training and salary/benefits package started to be increased for dispatchers.
    Dispatch went from being an entry level, dead end job, to the respected career it is today. And yet the burn out factor for dispatchers is very high.
    These folks absolutely deserve our respect!

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