Dispatchers honored as first responders

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WESTBROOK — In a public safety emergency, the dispatcher who handles the calls for the police and fire/rescue departments can sometimes go unappreciated.

Westbrook’s Public Safety Department this week honored its dispatchers as part of annual National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week. Each dispatcher received a gift bag, sweatshirt and thank you messages.

“It means a lot,” said Janelle Hall, who has worked as a dispatcher in Westbrook for more than five years. “It can be a thankless job. We do a lot and don’t end up getting recognition from the public.”

Hall, one of 10 full-time and four per diem dispatchers in the city, is happy to play her part behind the scenes, but “it is nice to have a week like this when people can thank you,” she said.

Although dispatchers are not on the front lines of an emergency, they assisting first responders over the phone, said Public Safety Communications Director Greg Hamilton. Dispatchers are trained in CPR, childbirth and administrating Narcan.

Hall is an active in 911 education in the schools as part of Fire Safety Day, teaching K-6 students about the role of a dispatcher and when it is OK, or not OK, to call 911.

Leger said police responded to a domestic violence call made by a child who said they knew to make the 911 call because of Hall’s efforts at their school.

“If I can help just one kid, it’s worth it,” Hall said.

Hamilton said it takes a certain kind of individual to be a good dispatcher: they have to be able to convey a sense of calm to callers while they triage the emergency and work with responding police or fire/rescue personnel.

“The skills, abilities, and character traits needed to be successful as a dispatcher are vast and challenging to outline,” Westbrook Police Chief Janine Roberts said. “Those who step into the profession and do it well should be applauded on a daily basis, not just during National Telecommunicators Week.”

Fire Chief Andrew Turcotte said the communications center serves as the hub of the Public Safety Department.

“Our communications division and the men and women who staff the 911 centers and who answer the 911 calls are consummate professionals. When the unthinkable occurs, they are the first contact our citizens have with first responders. Before a blue or red light flashes, a siren blares or an ambulance responds, they are the individuals organizing emergency response,” he said. “The dispatchers are often the unsung heroes, who provide the vital pre-arrival instructions to those experiencing a medical emergency. They also provide our public safety staff with vital information enroute to calls.”

Hamilton said the call volume for dispatchers, who handle emergency and non-emergency public safety calls, walk-ins and answer after-hours calls to the Public Services Department, has tracked up over the years.  In 2018, dispatchers handled roughly 45 emergency calls per day for a total of 16,381, 400 more than in 2017.

The Westbrook dispatch center also handles 911 calls for Falmouth and Yarmouth.

“We are proud to call our telecommunication operators peers and we are extremely proud of the work they do, day in and day out to support the men and women who respond to calls for service in the city of Westbrook,” Turcotte said.

Despite the key role they play, dispatchers are often classified as clerical workers.  Hamilton said that could change. He supports a federal effort – 911 Supporting Accurate Views of Emergency Services (911 SAVES) Act – underway that would reclassify dispatchers as first responders. The reclassification would “accurately recognize them as an essential part of the public safety community,” according to the National Emergency Number Association.

He said there is also a bill in the state Legislature (An Act To Create Fairness for Dispatchers in the Maine Public Employees Retirement System)  that would make dispatchers eligible for special retirement plans similar to those for police officers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians and other law enforcement officials.

The Legislature’s Committee of Labor and Housing will hold a public hearing on the proposed bill will be held Monday, April 22, at 9 a.m. at the statehouse.

Michael Kelley can be reached at 780-9106 or mkelley@keepmecurrent.com or on Twitter @mkelleynews.

Westbrook dispatcher Janelle Hall fields a call in Westbrook Public Safety’s emergency communication’s center Tuesday. Hall has been a dispatcher for more than five years and is involved in public safety education in the schools.

As part of National Emergency Telecommunicators Week, the Westbrook public safety team honored dispatchers for their role in keeping residents safe.

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