911 for emergencies? Yes. For chit chat. No.
ALAMOSA — Years ago, while working as a 911 dispatch operator in the San Luis Valley, Cameron Decker with the Colorado State Patrol answered a somewhat unusual call.
The caller was watching the news and learned that hummingbirds in South America were running out of food because of deforestation. She called 911 and said she needed a recipe for hummingbird food.
What did Decker do?
“I fired back a recipe,” he says, as if it was all just in a day’s work.
Decker, in his 25th year, is now Colorado State Patrol’s Regional Manager over the Dispatch Call Center, and the individual ultimately responsible for overseeing officer, fire and emergency medical dispatch for multiple agencies throughout the entire San Luis Valley and — in the case of medical emergencies — parts of Hinsdale County.
While he tells the story in good humor, he also says that members of the public calling 911 with non-emergency issues are problematic.
Each month, Decker’s staff — which usually includes less than a half dozen dispatchers on duty at any given time — averages 12,000 to 13,000 calls a month. About 2,000 calls are made to 911, the number reserved for emergencies.
“I would like to ask that people don’t call 911 to find out why the power is out or what are the road conditions or something like that,” Decker said. “Sometimes, we’ll get people who call because they just want to talk or chit chat.”
He credits his staff for being highly dedicated to their jobs and remaining professional, no matter who they are speaking to.
“But calling 911 needs to be left for a true emergency,” he said. “Here, we’re doing medical emergency dispatch, so we’re giving medical protocols over the phone to the caller such as giving instructions for how to do CPR or how to position the body of a victim while we have an ambulance responding. That can be very stressful for the person on the other end, so we need that time to concentrate on what’s happening in those calls.”
There is also significant stress in being a 911 dispatch operator — the first person to communicate with someone who is experiencing a significant crisis.
“People are calling for an officer or because there’s a fire or calling for EMS because there’s been an accident,” Decker said. “In that moment, those people may be experiencing one of the worst moments of their life. That makes it a very stressful job. A lot of training goes into calming techniques to talk to people and help them get as calm as they can be and to get the help they need.”
And the stress for dispatchers doesn’t always end with the call, Decker says. Sometimes, dispatchers find out what happens to the people they speak to but, more often, they don’t get closure as “one call comes in after another and another,” making it impossible to find out how things turned out for the person they were just speaking to.
Dispatchers are also “blind” about what situations law enforcement, or first responders are responding to, he says. All dispatchers can do is pass on whatever information they have been able to learn from speaking to someone on the other end of the phone.
“Dispatchers are human beings. They’re not robots,” Decker said. “They take home a lot of stress. We try to provide some support if they’ve had a very serious incident and get them debriefed so they don’t carry that with them all the time. But different people handle things differently.”
Decker, who is serving the same community where he grew up, has learned to deal with the stress — especially the more tragic incidents — by hunting and fishing and spending time with family while being aware if there’s a chance that the impact “might pop up at a later time.”
Being a dispatcher during the holidays is not that different than any other time during the year, he says.
“You don’t want anything bad happening to anyone anytime,” he said. “That carries a little more weight on a holiday. But the dispatchers are going to handle the call the same way they would on any other day. Like I said, people are calling on what may be the worst day of their lives, and we’re going to be here to get them the help they need.”