New Garfield dispatcher wins national award
It takes a cool head when you have someone’s life on the line. But that’s the everyday job at the Garfield County Emergency Communications Authority.
The team is made up of 20 dispatchers, and on any given day three to five are on duty, 24 hours per day. In the dispatch center are a half dozen work stations surrounded by dozens of screens. A red light tops each work station and lights up when the dispatcher is on a call. When they go into action, the group works as a team, staying tuned in to what each other is working on. So if one is on the phone with a caller, another can be dispatching EMS or law enforcement.
The traits you need for this kind of work, the ability to deal with stress and long hours, aren’t something you can simply will yourself into having. Some really well-intentioned people come to Garfield County’s dispatch, but they just aren’t the right fit for one reason or another, said Tom Holman, 911 operations manager at Garfield County Emergency Communications Authority.
But our local dispatch center recently had a dispatcher still in training recognized with a national award for keeping his cool during a tense call. Dispatch training is six to seven months long, and Steven Burket is still at the beginning stages, at about a month-and-a-half in. And an emergency dispatcher organization recently announced it was awarding him with Call of the Week in recognition of his performance.
The dispatch center doesn’t have a training ground where new people can take fake calls to practice, he said. Trainees are watching live calls and learning from experienced dispatchers in action.
“It really takes a village, and everyone is invested in the trainee completing the process,” said Holman.
Dispatch gets about 250 calls per day, which include 911 and non-emergency calls. The dispatchers get about 25 to 30 true emergency calls per day, said Holman. “You never know what you’re going to get when you pick up the phone.”
Though he was new on the job, only a month in and a week with his emergency medical dispatcher certification, Burket was fielding a call from a woman whose relative was unconscious and not breathing.
The woman on the phone was obviously very emotional and panicked, on the verge of being out of control, said Burket.
A big part of the dispatcher’s focus has to be on the caller, not just the patient, because the caller is the one the dispatcher is dealing with, the person who they’re relying on for information or to take lifesaving steps, he said.
Dispatchers are trained to get control of the situation, to talk to the caller calmly but assertively to bring their panic down to a level where the dispatcher can get the information needed to get emergency services to the location. Burket said he doesn’t like to be aggressive, but in these circumstances, the dispatcher has to raise his or her voice to get the panicked caller under control and to make sure their instructions are heard.
He told her to take a deep breath. Burket reassured the caller that he was going to help her through. She took about 5 seconds to breathe and reset, “and then we rolled right into our procedures,” he said. “She was battling her emotions for obvious reasons. But I assured her that I would stay with her.”
At first the woman reported that the man was unconscious, but then Burket elicited from her that the man also wasn’t breathing, which dramatically changed the type of call. While EMS was en route, Burket walked the caller through giving the man CPR compressions. The EMS response was quick, so the call was only a couple of minutes, but these were critical minutes. And the man was eventually breathing again. Dispatchers have protocols to help walk callers through all kinds of medical emergencies, from CPR for children to delivering babies, said Holman.
While new people are still in training and taking calls, their trainer is plugged in and listening, ready to jump in if the trainee falters. But Burket’s performance impressed, and his supervisor let him handle the entire call because he was doing so well, said Holman.
A dispatcher has a pair of concerns to deal with when getting an emergency call. First, they have a protocol to follow to get the information they need and get responders on scene — but they also have their own emotional response to deal with.
“What made this unique was that this was a very stressful call, but Steven stayed calm,” said Holman.
Burket “took guidance from his trainer,” also an experienced dispatcher, said Gena Baker, supervisor at Garfield County Emergency Communications Authority. “He reassured the caller and made sure they knew that they weren’t alone. They were in it together — a team, trying to save a life. I was so hugely impressed with his composure on the call and his ability to put into use such a new skill with a measure of ease I’ve not seen myself in someone so new to the industry,” Baker said. “It makes me very excited for his future with us.”
Burket, who served for 12 years in the Navy and who has lived in Glenwood for eight years, said he sought the dispatch job because it’s such engaged work — which is probably a big understatement. The job comes with long hours and a high level of stress that not just anyone could handle. Burket said his trainers and supervisors deserve most of the credit for how that call went.
“It was through their guidance that allowed me to take that call and to remain as calm as possible,” he said. “They’re at a level of professionalism and knowledge that I hope to reach.”