Behind the scenes at Sonoma County emergency dispatch centers
The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office Dispatch Center received a call about a shed on fire in Windsor around 11 a.m. Monday. The dispatcher transferred the call to the Redwood Empire Dispatch Communication Authority, better known as REDCOM, which handles most medical and fire emergency communication in the county.
The REDCOM dispatcher asked the caller her location and contact information and then inquired about the fire. The caller claimed someone had set her shed ablaze. The dispatcher with the Sheriff’s Office was still on the line and quickly took the call back, as it shifted from a fire to criminal call in just a few words. In the end, arson was ruled out by Windsor police.
As the dispatchers fielded emergency calls and stayed in steady communication with each other, they also celebrated the first day of National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week or, more succinctly, National Dispatchers Week. The two Sonoma County units, located in adjacent rooms on the second floor of the Sheriff’s Office in Santa Rosa, decided to kick off the week honoring them by donning camouflage clothing Monday rather than their navy blue uniforms.
The choice in clothing and the enthusiasm with which dispatchers in both units wore it was symbolic of both their personal eccentricities and their unity as a group. It’s a unique breed that does this job.
“Dispatchers get the raw emotion. The emergency is fresh,” said Brian Crabb, a REDCOM dispatcher who also works as a reserve engineer for the Healdsburg Fire Department. “When you get to them (callers) in the field, they’ve had time to cool down.”
While police, firefighters and paramedics are the face of first responders, dispatchers’ unsung work of collecting, organizing and distributing information is the glue of the emergency response system.
In many cases, it is a dispatcher who uses his words to save a life. He or she instructs someone on how to perform lifesaving CPR, comforts people contemplating suicide before supportive services can arrive or even tells a nervous friend or family member how to deliver a baby.
“It’s hard. You can be on the phone with someone for 15 minutes talking them down from the edge of suicide, then you’re on to the next call,” said John Bazzano, who has worked as a dispatcher for the Sheriff’s Office for 22 years. “There’s never time to decompress.”
But Bazzano loves his job. When a small group of people spend hours together dealing with crisis situations, a tight-knit camaraderie develops.
“We have to have each other’s backs,” Bazzano said, looking around the room at his camo-clad colleagues.
“It’s talking with each other that helps us deal with some of the more difficult calls.”
The Sheriff’s Office dispatch, which receives calls from unincorporated Sonoma County, answered roughly 160,000 calls in 2016; nearly 27,000 were 911 related. If they are determined to be medical or fire calls, they are then transferred to REDCOM. All told, REDCOM answered more than 130,000 calls in 2016 and 65,308 led to the dispatching of fire or emergency medical services.
REDCOM earned the distinction of being accredited as an emergency dispatch center of excellence by the International Academies of Emergency Dispatch on March 29. This makes REDCOM the 17th dispatch center accredited by the IAED in California. To earn the accreditation, dispatchers must adhere to strict guidelines regarding what questions to ask and when, and follow a script that has been created for nearly every emergency situation, while keeping the calls personable and professional.
There are no standard protocols for dispatch centers in the state of California, but there are best practices adopted by industry organizations. For the Sheriff’s Office dispatchers, there is no script to follow and questions are based on intuition and judgment.
“When you have a deputy on a Code 3 call, lights and sirens, you need to make sure you get them all the information they need about the suspect and scene,” said Bazzano. “It’s about officer safety.”
The focus of the two dispatch centers is different. For the Sheriff’s Office dispatchers, the focus isn’t on patients, but rather on the safety of law enforcement responding to the call and, in turn, public safety.
Not so for REDCOM.
“For us, we don’t care who they are or what they did, we just want to get the patient to safety,” said Krista Butts, a 30-year-old REDCOM dispatcher, who sat in front of seven monitors Monday.
Butts just then received a call from a woman who found her friend dead. Butts encouraged her to perform CPR, but the caller refused, saying her friend was already stiff.
“This job has changed my whole view on death. It’s so random, so everyday,” said Butts, who has also helped deliver two babies over the phone during her four years on the job.
You can reach Staff Writer Nick Rahaim at 707-521-5203 or firstname.lastname@example.org.