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Dispatchers reflect on job atmosphere, passions

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Debbie Carter admits sometimes her agency gets left out of media stories that involve firefighters, police or medical workers doing good deeds or working in bad weather, even though her agency supports them all.

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“It’s hard to compete with blue lights and bullets,” she said.

Carter, who has worked in dispatch for 35 years and is the director of the Nelson County Dispatch Center, said despite this, it’s still satisfying to be present when somebody needs them.

“We will always be here,” she said.

This week, Carter and her employees are celebrating National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week, which honors telecommunications personnel in the public safety community.

Carter summed up the job of a telecommunications operator, or dispatcher, in one sentence.

“We relay information, and we move resources,” she said.

Besides providing information to the police, fire and emergency medical services about the location of possible crimes or accidents, dispatchers are also responsible for entering data into the National Crime Information Center, entering emergency protective warrants, checking to see if anyone has active arrest warrants, informing police officers if a person has a concealed carry license and handling other sensitive personal information.

“We do a lot,” Carter said.

Sometimes stressful

Unlike with a first-responder who is only assigned to one incident scene, Carter said, if there are several incidents going on concurrently, a dispatcher must be able to handle all of those calls.

“The dispatcher is not ever afforded the opportunity to work one incident at a time because phone calls continue to come in,” she said.

The job can also be frustrating when people with an emergency have no idea where they are or give incorrect information.

The information dispatchers receive can be multi-layered as well.

For example, for a burglar alarm, a dispatcher may get the address, the alarm company, a callback number, a particular part of the building where the alarm has been activated, the name of the residence and if the alarm company will inform a contact about the alarm.

Dealing with family members who have someone who recently died can be hard, as well as dealing with incidents that may involve young children.

Dispatcher Marsha Keaton said it’s important to have a calm head when the job gets stressful.

“I don’t get in a panic over things,” she said.

The Nelson County Dispatch Center currently employs nine full-time people with four working part time. Carter said the pay is low.

“You certainly don’t get rich in this job,” she said.

Dispatcher Kimberly Ball said the job can also bring a lot of unknowns.

“We can go from absolutely nothing to absolute pure hell here in five seconds flat by a phone ringing,” she said, later adding that the dispatch center may receive several phone calls over a minor car accident, but one phone call over a serious car collision.

The job does have its lighter moments, though.

In January, twins were born prematurely during a winter storm in Bardstown. Employees of the Bardstown Fire Department and Nelson County EMS were tasked with going out into the storm and caring for the newborns.

Keaton took the initial 911 call and said it was a good memory for her.

Carter recalled a moment “years ago” where a police officer injured in a car accident in Louisville thanked her for being on the radio and getting him help.

“That’s what we’re here for,” she said.

The technology the dispatch center uses will also help make dispatchers’ jobs easier later on.

At the end of May, the dispatch service will transition to a new computer-aided dispatch (CAD). One of the features on the CAD will allow someone who calls into dispatch to have their location show up on a map.

“So if somebody gets disconnected, if we can’t get them back on the phone, we have a pretty good idea where they are. Within basically about 300 feet,” Carter said. “So, it’s pretty awesome.”

Closely-knit

The dispatch center will occasionally call other dispatch centers from nearby counties to see if emergency personnel are available when too many Nelson County first-responders are tied up in other incidents or emergencies.

Carter said the support will go beyond that.

For example, dispatchers of MetroSafe out of Louisville and Bullitt County came and handled the dispatch for Nelson County while the dispatchers were attending the funeral of Jason Ellis, a Bardstown Police Officer who was murdered in 2013.

Carter said “the public safety world” is closely-knit.

“It’s kind of like having a brother or sister. You might b***h about them, but buddy, when you need them, they’re there,” she said.

Corey Lanham, a firefighter with the Bardstown Fire Department who worked six years in dispatch, called the agency a lifeline.

“We couldn’t do it without them,” he said.

Nelson County Sheriff Ed Mattingly called the agency the “heart” of police, firefighters and EMS, and said dispatch does its best to protect first responders from danger ahead of time.

“They can stop bullets before they happen,” he said.