EDITOR DANIEL CLIFTON
Their voices are lifelines for people whose worlds are crashing down around them. They are the emergency dispatchers answering 9-1-1 calls.
“We do more than just answer phones,” said Sarah Wilcox, the Burnet County Sheriff’s Office communications supervisor. “There’s a lot that goes into this job that I don’t think people understand or realize.”
Wilcox took a seat in the BCSO communications room about nine years ago. She had an idea of what dispatchers did, but it wasn’t until she began four months of training that the role became clearer. Even before her training was complete, Wilcox knew one thing about dispatch.
“I loved it,” she said. “The first time I sat in that chair, I fell in love with it.”
Love for a career, well, it’s like a lot of things that can diminish with time and a hard dose of reality. What would happen when the initial infatuation faded and the reality of handling emergency calls — some tragic —settled in? For Wilcox, that love remains.
When dispatchers answer a 9-1-1 call, they are the first connection to emergency help when things are going terribly wrong. It could be car accident, a house fire, a serious crime, or any number of unsettling and dangerous situations.
Wilcox said what makes her job so rewarding is that, every day, she and the other dispatchers help people.
“You know you’re making a difference,” she added.
A dispatcher’s role is much more than answering a call. They are just as much a first responder as firefighters, EMS, and law enforcement. When a call comes in, dispatchers quickly assess the situation and prioritize. Wilcox explained that vehicle accidents with injuries, crimes in progress, and incidents involving firearms rank as highest priority.
Commonsense and experience apply as much as training when handling calls. During each 9-1-1 call Wilcox answers, she listens — not just to the person on the line with her but also to what’s going on in the background such as noises or other voices, which can offer information about the situation.
“You have to be able to pay attention to details,” Wilcox said. “We don’t just take the call and address and that’s it. We have to really listen to what’s going on.”
While they might not be on scene, dispatchers feel a connection with the victim.
“I did have some calls affect me, and it’s all I can do to get through them with a lump in my throat, but you do,” Wilcox said. “It’s hard sometimes.”
On some calls, dispatchers might have to handle a number of responding agencies all converging on the scene. In major incidents, such as the Park Road 4 fire in August 2018, outside agencies were called in to assist in firefighting efforts.
In cases like that, a BCSO dispatcher sets up on scene to handle all incident communications traffic. The dispatcher must also monitor operations, noting when agencies or crews arrive, leave, or take a break, Wilcox said.
Dispatchers handle non-emergency calls as well. They also input a tremendous amount of data, including reports of stolen items.
If there’s one thing Wilcox hopes the public comes to understand about 9-1-1 communications and dispatchers it’s that they are not just sitting around waiting for calls to come in. Though some days aren’t as busy as others, dispatchers are still taking non-emergency calls, entering data, and filing reports.
When they do take a call, emergency or non-emergency, Wilcox asks one more thing from the public.
“Be patient,” she said. “We’re just doing our job, and we’re trained to do it. Even though we might ask some questions that may seem silly to you, there is a reason for them. So please, be patient and let us help you.”
In the end, Wilcox said that’s what it comes down to for her and other dispatchers: helping people.
“Our first priority is community and officer safety,” she added.
Read more stories like this one in The Picayune Magazine.