March 20, 2015
By Heather Darata
The caller was in a vehicle moving fast through a part of town located outside the jurisdiction of the 9-1-1 center where the call was received. This made it impossible for EMD Debbie Cook to determine her coordinates.
English was not the caller’s first language, and despite several attempts, Cook was unable to patch in a Spanish language translator.
Cook strained to listen and was eventually able to recognize three words—“Wal-Mart,” “university,” and “Arby’s”—that created a mental map of a familiar area in Coles County, Ill., a county adjoining Douglas County. The woman on the phone was most likely driving along a commercial district of Charleston, Ill.
The Douglas County (Ill.) Sheriff’s Office calltaker started piecing together the caller’s situation, judiciously forming a picture from the tone of her voice.
“I could hear the desperation, and I could tell she was in some sort of pain,” Cook said. “She sounded scared. I didn’t know if she was being followed, but I knew she was fleeing from someone.”
A deputy in the communication center whom Cook signaled contacted police in Coles County. The search for the caller by law enforcement personnel in Coles County was initiated. Cook relayed up-to-the-minute information to the neighboring 9-1-1 center.
For 20 minutes Cook talked to the driver. She was able to understand more of why the driver was so frightened. The caller was in danger, a victim of domestic abuse, and she was frantic to put increasing distance between the attacker and herself.
Peter Buckley, Chief Deputy, Douglas County Sheriff's Office, said he could see the intensity on Cook’s face.
“Debbie was calm and focused,” he said. “I could tell she had made a connection with the caller even without speaking the same language.”
Cook was finally able to convince the caller to pull over next to the Arby’s fast food restaurant, which would provide a definitive location for officers on the lookout for the car.
Cook directed the patrol car to the scene. The woman was found injured but safe, and that was gratifying to Cook despite the frustration she initially experienced when she was unable to connect to the translator and couldn’t speak the driver’s language.
“We worked through the situation, and I was relieved to get her the help she needed,” Cook said. “That was the important part.”
Buckley nominated Cook for an award based on the Oct. 29 (2013) call, and she was thrilled when she was announced as Telecommunicator of the Year at the annual Illinois Sheriff’s Association public service employee recognition ceremony.
“I always find myself grinning when I think of the award,” she said. “I was surprised, and it was such an honor to be recognized by my peers.”
Cook followed a fairly usual route to the telecommunicator profession. A friend who worked in the dispatch center told her about an opening. Cook applied, and 21 years later she is still there and happily so.
The job, however, wasn’t an immediate sell and, in fact, she said it took a couple of months to get over the feeling she had made the “worst mistake ever.”
Then it dawned on her: Emergency dispatch complemented her personality and the type of work she wanted for her career.
“This is about helping people,” she said. “My ability to help people keeps the passion going.”
The two telecommunicators assigned to every shift at the sheriff’s office dispatch for five law enforcement agencies and 11 fire departments in Douglas and Edgar counties. They answer fire, law enforcement, and medical calls. According to the sheriff’s office annual report (2012), they received 144,308 calls for service in 2011, of which 16,854 were made to 9-1-1. Telecommunicators also assist walk-ins coming to the front desk and take calls for the county’s animal control office.