911 operators take top honors
January 24, 2013
FORT CARSON, Colo. -- There's no "typical" day for operators in a 911 call center.
"We've handled everything from calming a lost child in distress to helping people deliver babies to directing someone on performing CPR over the phone," said Chief Jeff Craig, 911 manager, Directorate of Emergency Services. "You name it, my folks can handle it."
Craig said his team of 14 dispatchers handles between 50,000 and 60,000 calls each year. The team mans the dispatch center 24/7, 365 days a year, working 12-hour shifts that often stretch into 16-hour shifts.
"Every time somebody is out enjoying something, my folks are here," he said. "We pride ourselves on customer service."
The team, based in the call center at the Fort Carson Fire Department, is part of the El Paso Teller County 911 Authority, which is comprised of nine 911 centers with nearly 200 operators. Every few months, the El Paso Teller County E-911 Authority Board recognizes one dispatcher as the "Telecommunicator of the Quarter."
In 2012, Craig's team claimed the title three out of four quarters.
Three dispatchers -- Kim Perkins, Dana Carneal and Sue Aragon -- earned the title in the first, second and fourth quarters, respectively, after "going above and beyond" their duties to ensure the necessary help came to the distressed parties.
Perkins, who helped responders locate a man attempting to commit suicide, was also named "Telecommunicator of the Year."
"Nobody wants to get that call that makes them an award winner," said Perkins, shift supervisor and 911 dispatcher.
"We're the first, first responders," she said.
In a career field that experiences 34-percent turnover each year, Craig said his team has more than 150 years of experience.
"Eighty percent of those (who) leave the workforce each year have been on the job less than two years," he said. "We're dealing with people's day-to-day tragedies."
Perkins described Fort Carson as "a city within a city," with a high call volume. Understanding how to navigate calls, she said, is vital to knowing what help is necessary.
"We have one of the best records for longevity, which just makes us that much better and more familiar with what happens," she said.
Perkins said that some of the happiest calls she receives are when she has helped deliver babies over the phone.
"There are (a lot of) children born on front lawns, at gates, on sidewalks and on couches," she said, laughing. "Those are the great ones, the 'blessing calls.'"
Perkins said that because dispatchers can only hear what is happening when someone calls in, it is important for callers to be very clear when communicating the emergency.
"We're visually challenged, which is a blessing and a curse," she said. "We're only as good as the information that we get."
Perkins and Craig stressed that while they prefer community members to reserve 911 calls for true "life or limb" emergencies, they "never judge the integrity of the caller."
"It's our job to help calm down the situation on the other end of the phone," Craig said.
Maintaining composure and keeping a nonjudgmental attitude helped dispatchers earn those top titles.
Last May, Carneal, who earned the honor the second quarter of 2012, responded to a call of a vehicle driving into a residence on Fort Carson.
"As the call progressed," the resolution honoring her reads, "she heard the call taker confirm that there was smoke, fire, shots fired and a person on scene with a compound fracture."
Carneal relayed pertinent information to responders by the time they arrived on the scene three minutes and 50 seconds after the call was placed.
"I'm an adrenaline junkie," she said. "I love that fast pace."
Aragon earned recognition as the fourth quarter winner after she helped police stop an assault in progress. After receiving a call with vague information from an operator at Evans Army Community Hospital, Aragon was able to locate an address and dispatch police to the location.
"All she had was an area code," said Craig, adding that Aragon recognized the numbers from an earlier call and matched it to an address. "She could have stopped a potential murder."
For Aragon, she was simply doing her job.
"It's every day," she said. "If I hadn't done it, one of (the other dispatchers) would have."