FORT POLK, La. — “What’s the address of your emergency?”
That’s the first question asked by a Fort Polk Directorate of Emergency Services 911 dispatcher when a call comes into their control center. They follow up with questions pertaining to the nature of the emergency and continue to gather additional information, all while trying to keep the person on the other end of the line calm and sending them the help they need.
Jennifer Durrett, Fort Polk 911 dispatch supervisor, said a typical day for her team begins by checking their equipment and conducting communication checks with police patrols, ambulance and fire department units.
This assures that all radio operations are good to go for the day. The dispatchers will also gather any important information from the night shift as to what might be expected during the day.
Fort Polk’s DES Emergency 911 Center is one of the first consolidated 911 centers in the Army, meaning they dispatch fire, police and ambulance out of one office. Durrett said Fort Polk was selected as a template for other Installation Management Command installations to emulate.
“We provide 24/7 E-911 dispatch to the installation. Our center also monitors all fire and integrated commercial intrusion detection system alarms for Fort Polk,” she said.
Dispatchers don’t just answer phones — they are the first of the first responders, said Durrett.
“It starts with them. You dial 911 and our dispatchers have to be ready to react and send the appropriate assets for any situation,” she said.
Knowing how to react comes from intensive training.
“We attend emergency medical, fire and police dispatch training. It gives dispatchers a preemptive protocol so they know how to react to each situation. They can talk someone through CPR, how to deal with an assailant and get to a safe location until units get there and more,” she said.
Dispatchers have to get their initial certifications in all three disciplines and continue additional education to maintain those certifications.
Durrett said being a dispatcher is rewarding because you know that you are getting that person help.
“It makes me proud to do my job. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a minor nonemergency call or a major emergency, you are there to get that individual through this situation and get them the help they need,” she said.
Durrett said often dispatchers have to help calm the caller down to get the location and information needed to help them.
“It happens frequently. When a person dials 911 it triangulates the location of where that call is coming from. That helps us quite a bit in situations where we have had to use our resources to find that person. That’s why the first question we ask is, ‘What is your address?’ We have to be able to find you to send help,” she said.
One of the most memorable calls Durrett took was an emergency involving a newborn baby.
“The baby was choking. I helped the mom and grandmother go through the process of getting the baby breathing again before help arrived. Knowing I helped save that baby’s life means the world to me and is just one of the reasons I love my job,” she said.
Julie Pruitt, 911 dispatcher, said having the opportunity to get all the resources they need to a caller is amazing.
“But taking it a step further and being able to help them with information, such as how to perform CPR until help arrives, is even better. Not all call centers allow their dispatchers to do that. The training to be able to do that falls under the initial certifications we took to become dispatchers and that we retake annually to retain our certifications,” she said.
Pruitt remembered being the dispatcher on a call where the ability to aid with CPR made all the difference in saving a baby’s life.
“The baby had drowned. I helped the caller perform CPR and when it worked, the screams of that baby were the best sounds I had ever heard in my life,” she said. “To not have the ability to do that would be unimaginable. The outcome could have been completely different if they had to wait for emergency services to get there to help.”
Pruitt said as an enhanced 911 center, Fort Polk also stands out because, when a call comes in, they have the ability to send out every resource they have instead of just one.
“Instead of just sending the fire department or the police, when circumstances deem it necessary, we can send everybody. Having that ability to send fire, emergency medical services and police together to one place, and communicating with all of them immediately from one center, makes the continuity and response so much smoother and quicker. That’s important when every second counts for an emergency like a traffic accident with air bag deployment,” she said.
Pruitt said being a dispatcher can be an emotionally exhausting job.
“We get yelled at a lot. There are a lot of horrible things we deal with. We carry that home with us, but we have to learn to let it go,” she said. “I’ll deal with the tough situations because it’s my way to make a difference. This is my calling. You can’t change the world, but you can change one life at a time, and that’s what I do.”
On average, the Fort Polk Dispatch Center — a 10 person team — takes about 61,000 calls a year, which equates to 167 calls per day.
During National Public Safety Telecommunications Week, Col. Sam Smith, Fort Polk garrison commander, recognized Fort Polk’s DES dispatch dedication to duty and professionalism with a Letter of Appreciation that commended their contribution to the success and safety of the Joint Readiness Training Center and Fort Polk.
“Your individual efforts have assisted in the joint task of providing timely and life saving care for our Soldiers, civilians and Families,” said Smith.
Durrett said being recognized means a lot to them.
“It’s very rewarding,” she said.
Pruitt said she was shocked that they were being recognized.
“We aren’t used to getting that kind of praise for what we do. We tend to stay in the background, but it’s been really nice,” she said. “That recognition was appreciated.”