Dispatch keeps JPD on the move

Posted: Monday, September 06, 2010

They are the often-unseen members of the Juneau Police Department, working 12-hour shifts and more than 40 hours a week, and have basically seen it all, or at least have heard it all happening.

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Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire
Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire

The Public Safety Emergency Dispatchers of the JPD are the voices that keep the public and the police force just one short response time apart.

"The dispatchers are our lifeline," JPD Lieutenant Kris Sell said. "They help us when we are out there to get backup, medical assistance, they tell us when we are out there with someone who has a warrant ... they really provide us with information we cannot do our jobs without."

Sell said the dispatchers are the critical link in the police chain - the first call when someone dials 911. They are air traffic controllers on land and the appliers of the right tools to the right situation in the shortest time possible.

"As an employee, it is the kind of job where you never have to ask yourself if you need to get up and go to work," Sell said. "Because you know that every day you go to work you are a valuable part of that response."

On an average day, dispatchers flit from radio to computer to phone in a non-stop informational exchange. Aug. 23, a day lead dispatcher Tonya Kurtz said was typical, the JPD dispatch handled 146 instances, 72 of which were radio-initiated, meaning the officer called in traffic stops or follow-ups. The rest were either calls to the department, calls to 911 or faxed in from court.

"Dispatch is the brains of the operation," Sell said, "It is the eyes and the ears ... everything comes in here. It's a multi-tasking, multi-dimensional, six different issues going on at one time, along with calling officers on the phone, calling other agencies, the jail, tow truck operators ... It is just this constant juggling and prioritizing. And all paperwork has to be documented and monitored (as to) where it is in the system, whether is has been served or not."

When asked how they stay sane, five-year dispatcher Christy Smith said with a laugh, "That's kind of a loaded question, it is presuming there is a conclusion ... but seriously, job satisfaction. We realize we are that key part between somebody needing help and then getting help to them, knowing that you are helping other people."

Kurtz has 14 years inside the JPD communications - or "com" - center.

"We had an officer one time call in concerning a beaver stuck under the car," Kurtz said of one of the more unusual dispatch reports. "And you could hear the beaver calling out over the radio. ... Another involved an officer going to a bear call, and calling in with the bear on top of the car. ... Animals always make it interesting, there is never a clear-cut route as to what agency is involved."

Four new recruits recently took part in the department's six-week long Dispatch Academy, and, via blogs, kept a detailed account of their experiences.

Suzy Hall, David McMaster, Zane Nighswonger and Chan Valentine make the dispatch force 10 members strong now.

"Putting the information together quickly was the hardest part," Nighswonger said. "The first day we did an exercise that took us three hours, now we can do it in under 10 minutes easy."

Nighswonger said he wanted to be a dispatcher to give back to the community. Hall said he worked 14 years in the retail loss prevention field and thought the police department would be a natural progression. Valentine said she also wanted to give back to the community and help people, as well as it being a pretty good job. McMaster said he likes the job as well and the chance to do it in a great community.

"We are really short-staffed," JPD spokesperson Cindee Brown Mills said. "We actually have another opening right now."

The first weeks of the academy involved bookwork and classroom-style training; then involved computer applications necessary to perform the complex tasks required of a dispatcher. Time was spent in the com center observing, monitoring calls, talking to officers via radio and working on the department's computer aided dispatch system. They learned CPR, police, fire and ambulance locations and structures and various codes and numbers of various organizations. They became familiar with receiving requests for information, processing it and determining the correct agency to contact for response or information.

"We play a lot of ring ring - simulated phone calls to dispatchers," McMaster said. "When that first real call comes in we will be ready."

• Contact Klas Stolpe at 523-2263 or at klas.stolpe@juneauempire.com.

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