SEQUIM — A telecommunicator, also known as a dispatcher, is the person you likely encounter first in an emergency after calling 9-1-1.
They’re behind the scenes deciphering the situation, reaching out to first responders in the field and possibly initiating emergency measures for the person on the other line.
“It’s a job unlike anything else I’ve done,” said Karl Hatton, deputy director for Peninsula Communications, or PenCom, Clallam County’s 9-1-1 center.
“You never know what you’re going to get or the difference you’ll make.”
In March, the Port Angeles Police Department, which PenCom operates under, awarded the PenCom Life Saving Award to Communications Supervisor Dennis Laboy of Sequim for his efforts during a September 2021 incident.
Laboy, who has worked for PenCom for almost 11 years, said a woman called 9-1-1 about her husband who was unconscious and not breathing.
Moments prior, Laboy had to call back the number after a hangup, and within 17 seconds, he had connected with paramedics and sent them the caller’s location, Hatton said.
Laboy also determined that the man needed CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) and when told the wife didn’t know how to do that, he gave her instructions.
She performed CPR for 7 to 10 minutes until medics arrived.
Port Angeles police reported that the husband, who was taken to St. Michael Medical Center in Bremerton, survived.
“I credit her with doing a great job for what was necessary to save his life,” Laboy said.
“I was impressed and pretty privileged in that position helping someone who was willing to help their loved one.”
Laboy said the award is a continued step forward for telecommunicators.
“The people I work with are amazing individuals,” he said. “It’s a special group and I’m honored to be a part of that.”
Senate Substitute Bill 5555, sponsored by Sen. Kevin Van De Wege of Sequim in part recognizes telecommunicators as first responders and sets the stage for these staffers statewide to establish a certification process for the profession.
Municipalities across the U.S. are also recognizing April 10-16 as National Telecommunicators Week.
Laboy pursued a career with PenCom after seeing an ad in the newspaper.
“I was looking for a job with benefits because I was thinking about my young family,” he said.
Many telecommunicators think about going into the medical field or law enforcement, but Laboy said he finds his work continues to get his adrenaline going.
“Someone is going through the worst scenario of their life and most human beings are going to be in a state of panic. Our job is to help them,” he said.
Response by callers, such as the woman who called 9-1-1 last September, are key.
“You as a loved one have a role in being able to save that loved one’s life,” Laboy said.
“We can’t do that without the assistance of our callers.”
Role of dispatchers
When a call comes into PenCom, telecommunicators are working with the caller and simultaneously with first responders in the field. Laboy said their goal is to dispatch an agency to a location in 60 seconds and if needed initiate CPR within 120 seconds.
He encourages callers to stay calm and follow instructions.
“[They] have two options: you can take out your frustration and be mad, or understand that the [telecommunicator] is trying to do everything in their power to help,” Laboy said.
“Ultimately, it can save a life.”
Laboy said the job requires a calm demeanor and the ability to think quickly.
“You just need to have a passion to help people and learn not to take things personally,” he said.
“At the end of the day, I love my job and for the most part we’re able to disconnect and learn from any errors.”
Said Hatton: “We do provide instruction that can make the difference in saving someone’s life.”
Filling a need
In recent years, finding and keeping public safety telecommunicators has been difficult, Hatton said.
PenCom continues to advertise locally and nationally, but he finds many state agencies are struggling to hire now.
PenCom has been operating around half staffing capacity with 10-11 of 20 telecommunicators for more than two years, Hatton said, while continuing to advertise vacancies.
Some administrative staff, including Hatton, have been working 9-1-1 consoles to cover shifts, too.
Basic training takes about six months before a person can work a console on their own, he said, and then it’s at least another six months with a mentor before they are independent.
“Thankfully, like most 9-1-1 centers, we’re always backing each other up,” Hatton said.
For more information about the vacant positions, visit cityofpa.us/1052/Job-Center.
Matthew Nash is a reporter with the Olympic Peninsula News Group, which is composed of Sound Publishing newspapers Peninsula Daily News, Sequim Gazette and Forks Forum. Reach him at email@example.com.