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On the Job: Work at 911 center stressful, satisfying


May 31–“On the Job” examines occupations both common and unique once a month in 2015.

SUNBURY — A small box on a computer screen lights up in red, indicating a 911 call from a cell phone.

Dispatcher Kayliesha Miller speaks through a headset: “911. What is your emergency?”

The person on the other end of the line is a passerby who came across a rollover crash at the Brewery Curve on Route 61 in Weigh Scales.

Within one minute of Miller answering the call, other dispatchers on shift — Derrick Cook and Amber Wheary — are working on notifying emergency responders. Within two minutes, rescue crews are on their way.

By then, Miller has moved onto the next call — a person reporting a threat against him at the office of Magisterial District Judge Hugh Jones inMount Carmel.

The frequency and variety of calls on this Thursday morning are typical in the course of a day at the Northumberland County 911 Center. It creates a unique bond among staff.

Stephen Jeffrey, county director of public safety, doesn't refer to the dispatchers as a team; it's more than that. It's a “family.”

“Our staff all works together well to help people, day in and day out,” he said.

Timing is everything

In the control room at the 911 center, part of the

Northumberland County Department of Department Safety, are four computer stations, each with six monitors and three mouses.

Through these stations, a dispatcher can do a variety of tasks, from researching criminal records to viewing maps to see which fire company is closest for dispatch on any given call.

A simple click of the mouse puts Cook in contact with any fire chief in the county.

“Timing is everything,” he said. “You have to quickly determine where the emergency is and who is the closest help to them. All the while, you have to keep the person calm in order to get the information out of them.”

Miller, Cook and Wheary normally work together. The three have established a good rapport and complement each other's skills.

“Amber is great dealing with the officers, so she normally handles the police dispatches,” Cook said. “I'm a firefighter, so I understand the fire calls and work with them. Kay is great talking to people on the phone and keeping them calm. So we work together well.”

Behind the scenes help

Of the three, Wheary has been at the 911 center the longest, while Miller is the newest member; she finished her training in September.

“I came here from being a home health aide because I wanted to help people and do it from behind the scenes, so it was a great fit,” Millersaid.

The three joke with each other between calls. It's a good camaraderie that has developed while working shifts as long as 12 hours.

“You work two shifts, it's 24 hours together, so you better get along with each other or it will be a long shift,” Wheary said.

Tough calls

If there is a downside to the job, Cook said it is some of the calls.

“I remember one call that involved an infant, and the person was just yelling and cursing at me as I was trying to find out what was wrong,” Cook said.

“That's the biggest misconception about being a 911 dispatcher,” Jeffrey said. “People think that we are asking stupid questions that delay getting help out.

“You saw today with the call on the accident, as the one person had the caller on the line, everyone else was working to get fire and EMS dispatched to the scene.”

By asking questions, Miller was doing her job, Jeffrey said, getting as much information as possible so responders know what they are walking into.

“On average, a shift can handle 140 to 160 calls during the day, and even more during the night,” Cook said.

As demonstrated in the brief period Thursday, things are always changing.

“You can go from being bored to being slammed in an instant,” Cook said. “One day, nothing was going on, and then we got five ambulance calls, two fires and three police incidents, all in the span of 45 minutes.”

People at their worst

Dispatchers normally work a schedule of four days on, two days off. Several have part-time jobs as well.

Some work for other counties on a part-time basis. Cook has two other jobs: At Selinsgrove Speedway and a chicken farm.

“This job has the flexibility to do other things, which you need to do so that it doesn't consume you,” he said. “When I'm off, I turn my scanner off.”

All three dispatchers said they have become different people since working at the 911 center.

“I used to be a person that could find the good in anyone, but this job — when you talk to people at their worst — changes you,” Miller said.

“You do get stressed out,” Cook added. “But the way the schedule is set up, you get time to recover. At the end of the day, you know you did well.”


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