High Stress, Long Hours For Evanston’s Police Dispatchers

Annie Martin

By Annie MartinThe Daily Northwestern

When Julie Jensen first started working as a dispatcher, she intended the position to be a “stepping stone” to becoming a police officer. Fifteen years later, she has made dispatching her career and is still motivated by her “ability to help others.”

Jensen has dealt with a variety of scenarios, from helping a caller successfully deliver a baby with its umbilical cord wrapped around its neck to assisting with a hostage situation. Her responsibilities are not limited to receiving 911 calls but also include coordinating police and fire department units, helping officers locate people who have called 911 and monitoring the police scanner.

Dispatchers work 12-hour days, with three people on each shift. They rotate between answering calls and assisting the other dispatchers. During certain times of day, the communications center becomes very hectic, Jensen said.

“You constantly have to be a team player and multi-task,” Jensen said. “It’s a great job but not everyone’s cut out to do it.”

Dispatching was a transition for Jesse Ramsay after working in a retirement community.

“It’s frustrating, nerve-wracking and tense, but it’s still really satisfying,” Ramsay said.

Ramsay said one of the most challenging aspects is calming a hysterical 911 caller so that she can get the information she needs to help him or her. The emotion in a person’s voice is not always the best indicator of how serious the situation is, Ramsay said. Sometimes, callers will sound distressed about a relatively minor problem; other times, a person will remain calm even though the situation is very serious.

Lynn Fishman, who has dispatched for nearly 20 years, said a great deal about the job has changed over the last two decades. The ability to find out where land line calls are coming from, the number of computers available and a computerized map that helps units find callers are newer additions. While the technology does make the job somewhat easier, Jensen said it cannot replace a competent dispatcher.

“Computers are only as good as the humans who put the information in,” Jensen said.

New hires must complete a three-month training program in which they work with an experienced dispatcher. Fishman, who helps train new dispatchers, says the more experienced dispatcher must still perform their job while making sure the new worker does not make any errors.

Once Fishman received a call from a man who had fallen from a roof but could not remember the address of the accident site. After he told Fishman the general area he was in, Fishman sent out several units and listened to the sirens through the man’s phone to figure out when they were close, allowing Fishman and the units to find him.

“It’s always unexpected,” Fishman said. “I like unpredictability, and I do better in a high-stress environment.”

Reach Annie Martin at [email protected]