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Police dispatchers: the lifeline of the city

Police dispatcher Stephanie Lavin manages multiple computers in the dispatch room of the Petaluma Police Department.

Scott manchester/For the Argus-Courier
Published: Tuesday, September 24, 2013 at 8:33 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, September 24, 2013 at 8:33 a.m.

It's 9 a.m. on a quiet Thursday morning in Petaluma. Marie Horton sits at her desk in a darkened room with six computer monitors glowing in front of her. As co-workers discuss paperwork and signatures in her right ear, the phone rings her through the headset covering her left ear. Her manicured fingers fly over the keys of two keyboards as she pulls up records from six different databases. She answers on the first ring.

“911, what's your emergency?” she asks calmly, pausing only to pull up a new call log screen.

Welcome to the world of a Petaluma Police Department dispatcher. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, through weekends, holidays, disasters and tragedies, the eight-person team works to direct law enforcement and emergency personnel where they're needed.

“They're truly the lifeline of the city,” said Councilmember Mike Harris, who recently spent several hours observing the Petaluma dispatcher center. “It is really amazing what they accomplish and what they have to handle in a given day. I'm not sure that I could do that.”

In addition to taking calls from stressed and emotional members of the public — like the lengthy call that came in last Wednesday evening from a woman whose husband had become suicidal — the dispatchers also pick up the slack in other areas of the police department. They do this while being short-staffed themselves. At its peak a few years ago, the police dispatch center employed 12 trained dispatchers who worked 8-hour shifts with four dispatchers on at all times. Now the department is down to eight dispatchers, and often runs a shift with only two dispatchers on at a time.

“We eat in this room; if we use the bathroom we have to make sure the other person is here. Basically, it's 12 hours of us not leaving this room,” said the 11-year veteran dispatcher Horton. “And we only have enough people to cover each shift. We also divide up 300-400 hours worth of overtime each month between the eight of us. Basically, we're lucky to get two days off in a row.”

Because the Petaluma Police Department overall is so short-staffed, the term “patchwork” has become commonplace among its employees and is used to describe moving people around to fill voids. The dispatchers not only handle their regular 911 and officer dispatch duties, they also “patchwork” for the front desk, handling all incoming calls during non-business hours, weekends and holidays. On top of that, they monitor the entire police department facility through an array of cameras and act as impromptu technicians when the department's aging equipment fails ­— which it does regularly.

“I've had to do (technical) things here on a night shift that I've never had to do in my regular life, like fix phones, work on the intercom system, figure out why some piece of ancient equipment has gone down,” said Horton. “You end up having to troubleshoot things because there is no one to call in the middle of the night when a system goes down.”

Petaluma Police Lt. Mike Cook said that in spite of staffing reductions, the dispatch center handled more than 50,000 law enforcement calls for service in 2012 — about 5 percent more than it did in the previous year.

“They have a very technical job that takes a lot of skill in a tough environment,” said Cook. “I'm not sure I would be very good at it, so I will stick to police work.”

To relieve the pressure on its small dispatch staff, the city recently authorized the department to hire a dispatch supervisor and full-time dispatcher. And while the crew is thrilled, Horton pointed out that it could take up to a year and half to actually get the new dispatcher working.

“It takes about six months just to get through the hiring and background checks,” she said. “And even then, that doesn't mean you will actually get someone who passes all the checks. After you finally do hire someone, it could take up to another year before they are (done with training).”

It's no surprise that training for the dispatcher position takes a while. Horton and fellow dispatcher Carli Shada — who has worked at the Petaluma dispatch center for 27 years — understand their positions and work well together. They anticipate each other's moves, help monitor phone lines and help out when the other person gets busy — all while keeping track of calls from eight officers, three radio frequencies and a city of 55,000 people.

“It's not a job for everyone, but we're a family and we love it,” said Horton. “It's a great job for someone with ADD (attention deficit disorder) because you never get to finish anything, but you….”

Before Horton can finish her thought, the 911 line rings again.

“911, what's your emergency?”

(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at janelle.wetzstein@arguscourier.com)

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