Scott Freitag

Scott Freitag

Story Vault

By Scott Freitag

A sheet cake for every shift and baseball caps that could be worn all week while on shift were several ways Salt Lake City tried to show its gratitude to communication center staff during National Telecommunicators Week (NTW) in April.

That was only part of the effort. We had an event every day, starting Sunday, April 13, and running through Saturday, April 19—from hats and sterling silver key chains to a catered barbeque and cake—to honor the great job staff does 24/7.

We had a great time, both in the giving and the receiving, and a sincere thanks goes to all staff pitching in to make NTW something to remember, including non-comm. center employees taking a break from schedules to acknowledge the first, first link of emergency services.

We don’t do enough of that on a regular basis and, perhaps, if it wasn’t for NTW, we might let it drop altogether. Maybe that’s the reason why the week of recognition was established, so we don’t forget or let that expression of appreciation fall by the wayside in the rush of daily routine. Of course, we’re not forced to wait until NTW to provide the honors, but it sure helps to have the week pop up on our calendars.

The origins of a week commemorating telecommunicators dates back more than 30 years, although there were plenty of bumps along the way before the U.S. Congress passed the resolution to make it permanent in 1992. I doubt there are many public safety comm. centers that ignore NTW, despite down-to-the-bone budgets. We find a way.

Salt Lake City’s 9-1-1 Bureau pulled out many of the stops this year, having kept the party short in 2013 when staff was in the midst of moving into the new public safety building. The past 12 months comprised a lot of nip and tuck; it wasn’t about one side winning over but rather the ability to finally pull together a staff that hadn’t worked together in one room until the move. The result had to be certain—from the start—although at times the reality seemed indeterminable.

But that wasn’t the sole reason for celebration. Public safety dispatching takes—and you’ve heard this before—a unique personality.

The individual must be compassionate and persistent to assist callers who are quite possibly experiencing the worst moments of their lives.

They have to be polite and understanding no matter how badly they are treated by a stranger on the other end of the call.

They constantly listen to callers trapped by the emotion of the situation—fright, confusion, anger, and pain—knowing that they must break through to ask questions and, when necessary, provide life-saving Pre-Arrival Instructions.

They are second party to horrific situations that—if not for the sake of their profession—they might never experience in their lifetimes. Sometimes situations singularly, or over a period of time, take their toll, and dispatchers become the ones needing help (which demands courage to admit).

They work under extreme stress and everything that occurs in the center is pulled apart for quality review, with the media eager for a story (although I must admit some very positive articles in relation to NTW).

They work weekends, nights, and holidays. When their neighbors are taking cover from inclement weather, they’re either driving to the center or waiting for a ride from a designated public safety official. Many come in voluntarily to assist, but many times, they have no choice.

They go through an extensive interviewing process and, once hired, undergo weeks and months of training before taking calls (and that’s only after more time spent on the floor with a trainer).

They are required to multitask and adapt instantly to the ever-changing technology brought on by Next Generation 9-1-1 while often working in cramped spaces or buildings way past their prime.

The ones who do stay claim the good overrides the bad. It has to be that way.

The people at the center become part of their extended family. They watch the children of co-workers grow into adulthood, they grieve at each other’s tragedies and rejoice at each other’s successes, and they support each other when experiencing personal challenges and adversity.

They do the best they can do every day to hold together the world of their callers and their team.

NTW was created for continued recognition of the unsung heroes of emergency services, but whatever we do, it will never be quite enough of the recognition they deserve. γ