Las Vegas Sun

November 23, 2014

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Everyone has got their number

They hear the groan of everyday human tragedy, the crises and conflicts blurring into a single hum of desperation that fevers through the phones.

About 10,000 calls a day pour into MetroComm, the 911 call and dispatch center for Metro police: a woman calling from her closet while a stranger kicks in her front door; a kid cursing from a pay phone and hanging up; a man calling from inside a car he has just crashed; a frantic woman screaming in Spanish because she has just seen a cyclist hit by a truck.

"You can't imagine some of the sounds that come through the phone," says Liz Reich, who has worked as a MetroComm dispatcher for eight years. "We hear things that you shouldn't have to listen to. It can be hard to get the little sounds out of your head at night."

Like the sound of someone being bludgeoned. Or a mother bleating over her drowned baby. Or what many dispatchers consider the worst sound of all: the dead air of an officer down.

"It gets a little hairy every once in a while," says Reich, even-keeled though she is into her third hour of mandatory overtime. "That's part of the stress."

MetroComm is the epicenter of police operations, and the job is as stressful as it is invisible. T.P. McAtamney, a former Florida dispatcher who travels the country giving stress management seminars for dispatchers, says most people quit after only a few years because the burnout is deadly.

"You're talking about critical stress, the kind of stress soldiers in combat face, just without bullets flying over their heads," McAtamney says. "These aren't just people that can answer the phone. These jobs, they look like NORAD. Nobody knows what we do, what we go through."

In a large gray room with cubicles staged like honeycomb, MetroComm dispatchers must master multitasking, scanning three screens, talking on two phones and patching out radio commands with a foot pedal.

Meanwhile, calls for service never seem to stop as dispatchers must continuously decide which officer to send where. They look at maps, consider routes and response times, and gauge risk to the officers, whom they must repeatedly check in with and monitor.

A single dispatcher will manage calls for more than 20 officers. When every officer is occupied, which is often, all the dispatchers can do is fidget in their seats while screens everywhere flash warnings that they're falling behind.

Every single call is recorded. A bad decision can mean a lawsuit for the department; a mistake can mean life and death, for an officer or a citizen.

During a recent shift, MetroComm veteran Judy Baker's wildest call comes from a bank teller reporting that a hysterical customer has come in asking for a loan to finance her suicide.

In the abbreviated parlance of rapid-fire dispatch, the most serious calls - officer-involved shootings, homicides, situations where people or property are in physical danger - are "hot calls," says Thomas Cullem, who spent 10 years manning MetroComm phones before hanging up his headset and taking an administrative job overseeing the recording of all MetroComm's calls.

Yet, somehow, the more hot calls that come in, the calmer and more controlled a dispatcher must be.

"There is no stopping," Cullem says, looking at computer screens over a colleague's shoulder. "She can't stop typing and the officers are back to back. She has to type as fast as those officers scream."

When Sgt. Henry Prendes was killed in the line of duty in February, Communications Bureau Capt. Brett Primas was on the call-center floor. At first, Primas says, the dispatchers mobilized instinctively, rerouting their officers to the deadly shooting scene from across the valley. When there was nothing left to be done, only then did the dispatchers let themselves be overwhelmed.

"We know these officers," Primas says. "They get attached to the voices."

To keep up with one hot call after another, dispatchers must remain fixed in what consultant McAtamney calls the "ready/alert mode," a state of sustained stress that's doubly charged when the calls are disturbing.

One dispatcher heard a woman stab her mother 60 times. Soon afterward, McAtamney says, she retired: "That took her out."

MetroComm's Reich says 10 or 15 calls come in every year that are hard to shake, such as the day she dealt with two distraught mothers whose children had drowned. The recent wave of officer-involved shootings in Las Vegas hasn't been easy, either.

Sometimes she'll leave her desk for a deep breath. Of course, at MetroComm, you can't go to the bathroom without first finding someone to cover your phone.

Some dispatchers simply shut down, McAtamney says.

"You numb yourself and you forget things you heard or did, you build this hard resilience, but inside you are absolutely dying," he says. "It's frightening. It can absolutely suck the breath out of you."

To complicate things, MetroComm is understaffed by almost one-third. About 130 dispatchers and 911 call takers are divided among round-the-clock shifts and must work at least three hours of mandatory overtime every week to make up for the 60-person deficit, Primas says.

Meanwhile, the call volume continues to grow. During the last fiscal year, MetroComm staff fielded 3,564,092 calls, an increase of more than 280,000 calls since 2001-02. The monthly volume is posted on the wall for every dispatcher to see, for many just another grating reminder that everything is always speeding up, coming in faster and hotter.

Metro is constantly recruiting new dispatchers. Applicants often don't realize, however, that the job is much more than being a switchboard operator, and there is a high number of washouts during the basic training program. In a most recent class, only 11 people in an initial class of 20 successfully completed the course.

More than 90 percent of the dispatchers are women, and female dispatchers say that is because of their superior multitasking skills. McAtamney attributes the preponderance of women dispatchers to their innate ability to empathize with callers.

In February, an agitated man called the 911 center and insisted on speaking with another man; so Primas took the call. The caller was Christopher Scott Hawkins, dialing from inside the Eastern Avenue apartment where he was holed up with a .40-caliber semiautomatic weapon and the SWAT team outside.

Hawkins, who earlier that afternoon had fired at a group of police officers, called 911 angry about being barricaded inside his apartment, Primas says:

"He was very, very upset, volatile, belligerent. He said he wanted to kill."

Hawkins and Primas talked, but twice were disconnected. The second time, Hawkins didn't call back. Police had fired more than 600 rounds into the man's apartment, killing him.

On the seminar circuit, McAtamney advises dispatchers to monitor their health closely. Sustained stress can affect the immune system; so dispatchers spend their workday half-protected against illness, he says. As a result, it's not uncommon to find that everyone has a cold.

When McAtamney got chest pains a few years ago, he assumed it was a burrito he had eaten. He was training for an endurance race after work and running several miles a day. At home, he was tending to his wife and his mother, who both had cancer. When the pains didn't abate, McAtamney saw a doctor, who came into the consultation room, stepped back a few feet and said, "You're about to explode, and I don't want to get any of you on me."

Sometimes during seminars, McAtamney will tell people to just quit. "If you feel like this is killing you and you can't cope and adjust to it - go," he says. "There is a life after dispatch."

MetroComm dispatcher Reich has a cold but makes sure to wipe her workspace with anti-bacterial cloths and wash her hands. A former nurse and mother, she says some of the most stressful calls are those where the person on the line is so agitated that every question she asks escalates the tension.

"It's really horrific when you've got somebody that's screaming and yelling and they're agitated, and we can't get through to them," she says. "They start to spin out, so we use calming measures for the caller as well as (for) us."

Much of the stress in dispatch is cyclical and ever-mounting. If Reich is even-toned and persistent, she can squeeze a cross street or a vague address from a caller who is screaming on a cell phone, lost and frightened after a car accident.

At the end of the day, Reich says, it's feeling she has helped someone that keeps her coming back to work. But when the shift is over, she does her best to forget it, at least for a few hours. "You have to leave the job here," she says.

On her drive home, Reich turns the car radio off and listens to nothing.

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