Life lines
Durango dispatchers provide a local safety net

Dispatcher Lynn Hutchison fields a call at Durango/La Plata County Emergency Communication Center. The center receives as many as 120,000 calls a year and is the local link between responders and accidents./Photo by Stephen Eginoire

by Malia Durbano

The 911 call comes in, and the dispatchers go into action – listening, documenting, questioning, connecting and helping. They quickly assess the situation and get help on the way as soon as possible.

A few weeks ago, a potential suicide call hit the Durango Dispatch Center. Whitney Blakstad, a Level II dispatcher who has worked at the center for two years, responded to the caller with questions, “What is your location? What number are you calling from? Is the person intoxicated? Do they have a weapon?”

As she is documenting the call, the other team members’ ears perk up. Although on their own calls, they are ready to jump into action and get help on the way. As Blakstad calmly asks the caller for more information, she is consciously listening for what’s going on in the background. Is there yelling, the tinkling of glass or are there other conversations?

On New Year’s Eve, “the calls were nonstop,” shares Saara Schmidt, a Level I dispatcher who started last September. “At one point, we had no more officers to go to disturbances. There were bar fights, DWIs and cases of domestic violence. It’s hard to talk to drunk people, and they won’t give you the information you need.”

Kara Abdella, a Level III supervisor, adds, “It’s frustrating when bartenders call and say, ‘There’s a fight – click.’ We then use all the resources we have to get help there.”

The frustration does not end there. She shares a story about a recent call regarding a bad car accident. When asked for a location, the woman said she was in Hesperus. Emergency helicopters went out but couldn’t find the location. As it turned out, the accident was in Ignacio.

“If people call from land lines, we can find their location if they can’t give it to us,” Abdella explains. “If somebody is having a heart attack, or there’s an intruder in the house and you can’t talk, we have a better chance of finding you than if you call from a cell phone.”

On the subject of car accidents, the team has specific requests. They ask the public to be aware that they are trying to be efficient. If the accident is in a highly visible area, the center can get 10 - 12 calls for the same accident. If you see lots of people standing around or if emergency response vehicles are already on site, please don’t call. When you do call, follow the dispatcher’s lead.

“It’s important for people to answer our questions in the order they are asked and to be cooperative,” Blakstad explains.

Schmidt chimes in, “It’s important to be exact. Be aware of your surroundings. If you’re on a highway, know exactly where you are – it helps us get help to you quickly.”

Dispatchers are required to answer calls within 5 seconds and have to keep putting people on hold to take the new calls. There could be other emergencies that also need their attention. “If you pass by an accident and call but don’t stop to provide more information about what’s going on, we have to send paramedics – just in case,” Abdella says. “So, please stop if you call about an accident. These resources could be needed elsewhere.”

In their training, the dispatchers, more formally known as emergency communication technicians, learn the key questions to ask people who are calling with medical emergencies and then follow a prescribed formula on what advice to give. The team refers to a huge book of instructions to talk people through procedures to perform while the ambulance is on the way. While no one has actually helped deliver a baby via phone, Blakstad gave instructions to a woman just going into labor.

“Medical calls can be the most rewarding,” says Blakstad. “And they can be the most stressful because the situation can be life and death.” After getting the caller’s location and phone number, she runs through the list of questions, “Is the person conscious, are they breathing?” Chest pains, heart attacks, seizures and strokes are common calls.

Blakstad adds, “Structure fires can also be scary. It’s a very serious emergency, so I can get a little nervous. We need to get people there as soon as possible especially if there are people inside. We are worried for their safety and that of the responders. If the police officers get their first, sometimes they run inside to help.”

The 17 employees of the Durango/La Plata Emergency Communication Center cover the phones 24/7, 365 days a year. “These people need to go from 0 to 100 mph the second that phone rings,” Director Philip Campbell explains. “It can be slow, then at 3 a.m., we can have a big emergency.” The dispatchers handle an average of 210 calls a day, and that adds up to approximately 117,000 calls a year. As expected, the busiest times for calls are Thursday, Friday and Saturday between 6 p.m. - 2 a.m., when the bars close. “The ability to be cool, calm and collected in potentially life-and-death situations is a major prerequisite for the job,” says Campbell. “The team members simultaneously handle their own calls while listening with their other ear to what’s happening on co-workers calls. They need to be ready to jump in and help one another.”

Campbell explains another trait of the successful dispatcher: “repetitive persistence.” Dispatchers need to sometimes be firm while obtaining the information they need from frantic callers. They need to be demanding to get information from people who can’t think or function effectively in an emergency. They are not being rude; they are just doing their job. They’re gathering information quickly to make fast decisions.”

The team admits to really “being in the groove and using their full capabilities” when the phones are ringing nonstop. And while they take no joy in emergencies, the dispatchers do enjoy being there to help.

And the team does have one final request for the people of La Plata County. If it’s not a life or death emergency, please don’t call 911. The number to call for nonemergencies is 385-2900. The same dispatchers are answering all lines. If they put you on hold to grab another call, don’t hang up and call back. That only ties up more lines.

“It’s not your typical day job and every day is different and exciting,” Blakstad says in closing. “It is very rewarding to help people in need.” •



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